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US Army Looks for a Few Good Robots, Sparks Industry Battle

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 21:07
The U.S. Army is looking for a few good robots. Not to fight — not yet, at least — but to help the men and women who do. These robots aren't taking up arms, but the companies making them have waged a different kind of battle. At stake is a contract worth almost half a billion dollars for 3,000 backpack-sized robots that can defuse bombs and scout enemy positions. Competition for the work has spilled over into Congress and federal court. The project and others like it could someday help troops “look around the corner, over the next hillside and let the robot be in harm's way and let the robot get shot,” said Paul Scharre, a military technology expert at the Center for a New American Security. The big fight over small robots opens a window into the intersection of technology and national defense and shows how fear that China could surpass the U.S. drives even small tech startups to play geopolitics to outmaneuver rivals. It also raises questions about whether defense technology should be sourced solely to American companies to avoid the risk of tampering by foreign adversaries. Regardless of which companies prevail, the competition foreshadows a future in which robots, which are already familiar military tools, become even more common. The Army's immediate plans alone envision a new fleet of 5,000 ground robots of varying sizes and levels of autonomy. The Marines, Navy and Air Force are making similar investments. “My personal estimate is that robots will play a significant role in combat inside of a decade or a decade and a half,” the chief of the Army, Gen. Mark Milley, said in May at a Senate hearing where he appealed for more money to modernize the force. Milley warned that adversaries like China and Russia “are investing heavily and very quickly” in the use of aerial, sea and ground robots. And now, he added, “we are doing the same.” Such a shift will be a “huge game-changer for combat,” said Scharre, who credits Milley's leadership for the push. The promise of such big Pentagon investments in robotics has been a boon for U.S. defense contractors and technology startups. But the situation is murkier for firms with foreign ties. Concerns that popular commercial drones made by Chinese company DJI could be vulnerable to spying led the Army to ban their use by soldiers in 2017. And in August, the Pentagon published a report that said China is conducting espionage to acquire foreign military technologies — sometimes by using students or researchers as “procurement agents and intermediaries.” At a December defense expo in Egypt, some U.S. firms spotted what they viewed as Chinese knock-offs of their robots. The China fears came to a head in a bitter competition between Israeli firm Roboteam and Massachusetts-based Endeavor Robotics over a series of major contracts to build the Army's next generation of ground robots. Those machines will be designed to be smarter and easier to deploy than the remote-controlled rovers that have helped troops disable bombs for more than 15 years. The biggest contract — worth $429 million — calls for mass producing 25-pound robots that are light, easily maneuverable and can be “carried by infantry for long distances without taxing the soldier,” said Bryan McVeigh, project manager for force projection at the Army's research and contracting center in Warren, Michigan. Other bulkier prototypes are tank-sized unmanned supply vehicles that have been tested in recent weeks in the rough and wintry terrain outside Fort Drum, New York. A third $100 million contract — won by Endeavor in late 2017 — is for a midsized reconnaissance and bomb-disabling robot nicknamed the Centaur. The competition escalated into a legal fight when Roboteam accused Endeavor, a spinoff of iRobot, which makes Roomba vacuum cleaners, of dooming its prospects for those contracts by hiring a lobbying firm that spread false information to politicians about the Israeli firm's Chinese investors. A federal judge dismissed Roboteam's lawsuit in April. “They alleged that we had somehow defamed them,” said Endeavor CEO Sean Bielat, a former Marine who twice ran for Congress as a Republican. “What we had done was taken publicly available documents and presented them to members of Congress because we think there's a reason to be concerned about Chinese influence on defense technologies.” The lobbying firm, Boston-based Sachem Strategies, circulated a memo to members of the House Armed Services Committee. Taking up Endeavor's cause was Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat — and, like Bielat, a Marine veteran — who wrote a letter to a top military official in December 2016 urging the Army to “examine the evidence of Chinese influence” before awarding the robot contracts. Six other lawmakers later raised similar concerns. Roboteam CEO Elad Levy declined to comment on the dispute but said the firm is still “working very closely with U.S. forces,” including the Air Force, and other countries. But it's no longer in the running for the lucrative Army opportunities. Endeavor is. Looking something like a miniature forklift on tank treads, its prototype called the Scorpion has been zipping around a test track behind an office park in a Boston suburb. The only other finalist is just 20 miles away at the former Massachusetts headquarters of Foster-Miller, now a part of British defense contractor Qinetiq. The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The contract is expected to be awarded in early 2019. Both Endeavor and Qinetiq have strong track records with the U.S. military, having supplied it with its earlier generation of ground robots such as Endeavor's Packbot and Qinetiq's Talon and Dragon Runner. After hiding the Scorpion behind a shroud at a recent Army conference, Bielat and engineers at Endeavor showed it for the first time publicly to The Associated Press in November. Using a touchscreen controller that taps into the machine's multiple cameras, an engineer navigated it through tunnels, over a playground-like structure and through an icy pool of water, and used its grabber to pick up objects. It's a smaller version of its predecessor, the Packbot, which was first used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2002 and later became one of soldiers' essential tools for safely disabling improvised explosives in Iraq. Bielat said the newer Scorpion and Centaur robots are designed to be easier for the average soldier to use quickly without advanced technical training. “Their primary job is to be a rifle squad member,” Bielat said. “They don't have time to mess with the robot. They're going to demand greater levels of autonomy.” It will be a while, however, before any of these robots become fully autonomous. The Defense Department is cautious about developing battlefield machines that make their own decisions. That sets the U.S. apart from efforts by China and Russia to design artificially intelligent warfighting arsenals. A November report from the Congressional Research Service said that despite the Pentagon's “insistence” that a human must always be in the loop, the military could soon feel compelled to develop fully autonomous systems if rivals do the same. Or, as with drones, humans will still pull the trigger, but a far-away robot will lob the bombs. Said P.W. Singer, a strategist for the New America Foundation think tank: “China has showed off armed ones. Russia has showed them off. It's coming.”  

Cybersecurity Law: Vietnam Will Censor Internet, Not Close Websites

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 13:52
Expect to get caught if you post anti-government material on the internet in Vietnam or take a phishing trip. From 2019 authorities can build evidence against you from material provided by email services and social media networks including Facebook. Yet the country, mindful of its role in the emerging digital economy, won’t close down websites the way China does. Vietnam has long walked a thin line between a free internet as part of its economic growth and resistance against what market research firm IDC’s country manager Lam Nguyen calls “digital disasters.” The country is getting testier toward online dissent at the same time. A draft Cybersecurity Law decree to take effect Jan. 1 after 18 months in the making will help the communist government reach these goals by ordering service providers to do some of its surveillance work. Despite objections from Google and Facebook, global social media as well as email and e-commerce providers may be asked to store data in Vietnam, according to the Cybersecurity Law. Alternately, they can self-censor, turn over customer profiles and delete certain content, Nguyen said. “It’s like saying OK, as an online service provider with Vietnam users, you do collect data about such users and their online activities, but you are letting users use your platform or services for unlawful activities, so please come to the front of the line (so) that we can keep an eye out for you,” said Yee Chung Seck, partner with the Baker McKenzie law firm in Ho Chi Minh City. Catching up in cybersecurity According to a United Nations index, Vietnam ranked 101 out of 165 countries in exposure to cyberattacks.  “Vietnam has been historically weak when in it comes to cybersecurity,” cyber intelligence analyst Emilio Iasiello wrote in a commentary for the Cyber Research Databank. Domestic websites were hit by more than 6,500 malware or phishing attacks in the first eight months of 2018, Viet Nam News reports. Vietnam does not block the websites of foreign internet services that could spread objectionable content. Vietnam, like much of Asia, is trying to develop a digital economy, but unlike China it lacks easy-to-control homegrown alternates to the major Silicon Valley internet firms. “Obviously, the business and user communities are more likely hoping to avoid censorship of the internet outright, due to the growing digital commerce economy and also wanting a platform where freedom of expressions and opinions are allowed,” Nguyen said. A digital economy gives Vietnam an opportunity to resolve “big issues in its economic development,” the deputy minister of industry and trade was quoted saying in June. The manufacturing-reliant economy has grown 6 to 7 percent per year since 2012. About 70 percent of Vietnam’s 92 million people use the internet, with 53 million on social media sites. Protest from multinational internet content providers After Vietnam’s National Assembly approved the Cybersecurity Law in June, 17 U.S. congressional representatives sent a letter to Google and Facebook. They urged both to avoid storing data in Vietnam, to establish “transparent guidelines” on content removal and to publish the number of requests for removal. Facebook, Google and other foreign internet companies said earlier this month via a lobbying group that requirements to localize data would hobble investment and economic growth in Vietnam. The law also requires firms with more than 10,000 local users to set up local representative offices. Facebook said for this report it “remains committed to its community in Vietnam and in helping Vietnamese businesses grow at home and abroad.” Internet providers also worry the cybersecurity law gives “too much power” to Vietnam’s police ministry and lacks “due process,” Nguyen said. Authorities, they fear, could “seize customer data” and expose a provider’s users, partners or employees to arrest, which goes against privacy protection policies, he said. ​Fear among online activists Vietnam is looking to the cybersecurity law as well to control public criticism of government activity, activist bloggers believe. A string of Vietnamese bloggers was arrested in 2016 and 2017. Authorities will be able to collect user names, profiles and data on their friends, media reports and analysts say. “This law threatens and further curbs freedom to information, infringes (on) personal privacy, and will be certainly used as a tool to give more power to police force, which violates rights, even on behalf of the court on judging on the use of internet,” Hanoi-based internet blogger and human rights activist Nguyen Lan Thang said. Vietnamese activists leaned heavily on internet media to spread information about what they considered slow government reaction to a mass fish die-off in 2016. They use it now to decry corruption. “The Cybersecurity Law will have a huge impact on Vietnam’s dissidents and online activists. It will be a tool to silence dissidents, social commentators, and activists in general,” said Vu Quoc Ngu, a writer in Hanoi and director of the non-profit Defend the Defender. Vu Pham, Michelle Quinn of VOA contributed to this report.

Instagram 'Back to Normal' After Bug Triggers Temporary Change to Feed

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 02:01
Facebook Inc’s photo-sharing social network Instagram said on Thursday it has fixed a bug that led to a temporary change in the appearance of its feed for a large number of users. The bug led to a small test being distributed widely, the company said. As part of the test, some users had to tap and swipe their feed horizontally to view new posts, similar to its Stories feature. The momentary change sparked a widespread outrage among users on Twitter, with several comparing it to Snapchat’s unpopular redesign. “The Instagram update is so trash it’s worse than the Snapchat update,” @samfloresxo tweeted. The redesigned Snapchat app has struggled to attract more users since its roll-out last year and newer versions have been criticized for being too confusing. In response to a tweet, Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri apologized for the confusion and said, “that was supposed to be a very small test that went broad by accident.” “We quickly fixed the issue and feed is back to normal,” Instagram said in an emailed statement.

Pluto Explorer Ushering in New Year at More Distant World

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 01:02
The spacecraft team that brought us close-ups of Pluto will ring in the new year by exploring an even more distant and mysterious world.   NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will zip past the scrawny, icy object nicknamed Ultima Thule soon after the stroke of midnight.   One billion miles beyond Pluto and an astounding 4 billion miles from Earth (1.6 billion kilometers and 6.4 billion kilometers), Ultima Thule will be the farthest world ever explored by humankind. That's what makes this deep-freeze target so enticing; it's a preserved relic dating all the way back to our solar system's origin 4.5 billion years ago. No spacecraft has visited anything so primitive.   "What could be more exciting than that?" said project scientist Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, part of the New Horizons team.   Lead scientist Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, expects the New Year's encounter to be riskier and more difficult than the rendezvous with Pluto: The spacecraft is older, the target is smaller, the flyby is closer and the distance from us is greater.   New horizons  NASA launched the spacecraft in 2006; it's about the size of a baby grand piano. It flew past Pluto in 2015, providing the first close-up views of the dwarf planet. With the wildly successful flyby behind them, mission planners won an extension from NASA and set their sights on a destination deep inside the Kuiper Belt. As distant as it is, Pluto is barely in the Kuiper Belt, the so-called Twilight Zone stretching beyond Neptune. Ultima Thule is in the Twilight Zone's heart.   Ultima Thule   This Kuiper Belt object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. Officially known as 2014 MU69, it got the nickname Ultima Thule in an online vote. In classic and medieval literature, Thule was the most distant, northernmost place beyond the known world. When New Horizons first glimpsed the rocky iceball in August it was just a dot. Good close-up pictures should be available the day after the flyby. Are we there yet ?   New Horizons will make its closest approach in the wee hours of Jan. 1 — 12:33 a.m. EST. The spacecraft will zoom within 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers) of Ultima Thule, its seven science instruments going full blast. The coast should be clear: Scientists have yet to find any rings or moons around it that could batter the spacecraft. New Horizons hurtles through space at 31,500 mph (50,700 kph), and even something as minuscule as a grain of rice could demolish it. "There's some danger and some suspense," Stern said at a fall meeting of astronomers. It will take about 10 hours to get confirmation that the spacecraft completed — and survived — the encounter.   Possibly twins   Scientists speculate Ultima Thule could be two objects closely orbiting one another. If a solo act, it's likely 20 miles (32 kilometers) long at most. Envision a baked potato. "Cucumber, whatever. Pick your favorite vegetable," said astronomer Carey Lisse of Johns Hopkins. It could even be two bodies connected by a neck. If twins, each could be 9 miles to 12 miles (15 kilometers to 20 kilometers) in diameter.   Mapping mission   Scientists will map Ultima Thule every possible way. They anticipate impact craters, possibly also pits and sinkholes, but its surface also could prove to be smooth. As for color, Ultima Thule should be darker than coal, burned by eons of cosmic rays, with a reddish hue. Nothing is certain, though, including its orbit, so big that it takes almost 300 of our Earth years to circle the sun. Scientists say they know just enough about the orbit to intercept it.   Comparing flybys   New Horizons will get considerably closer to Ultima Thule than it did to Pluto: 2,220 miles versus 7,770 miles (3,500 kilometers vs. 12,500 kilometers). At the same time, Ultima Thule is 100 times smaller than Pluto and therefore harder to track, making everything more challenging. It took 4 { hours, each way, for flight controllers at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, to get a message to or from New Horizons at Pluto. Compare that with more than six hours at Ultima Thule.   What's next  It will take almost two years for New Horizons to beam back all its data on Ultima Thule. A flyby of an even more distant world could be in the offing in the 2020s, if NASA approves another mission extension and the spacecraft remains healthy. At the very least, the nuclear-powered New Horizons will continue to observe objects from afar, as it pushes deeper into the Kuiper Belt. There are countless objects out there, waiting to be explored.    

Source: Foxconn to Begin Assembling Top-End Apple iPhones in India in 2019

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 22:02
Apple Inc will begin assembling its top-end iPhones in India through the local unit of Foxconn as early as 2019, the first time the Taiwanese contract manufacturer will have made the product in the country, according to a source familiar with the matter. Importantly, Foxconn will be assembling the most expensive models, such as devices in the flagship iPhone X family, the source said, potentially taking Apple's business in India to a new level. The work will take place at Foxconn's plant in Sriperumbudur town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, said the source, who is not authorized to speak to the media and so declined to be named. Foxconn, which already makes phones for Xiaomi Corp in India, will invest 25 billion Indian rupees ($356 million) to expand the plant, including investment in iPhone production, Tamil Nadu's Industries Minister M C Sampath told Reuters. The investment may create as many as 25,000 jobs, he added. Another source also said Foxconn planned to assemble iPhones in India, in a move that could help both it and Apple to limit the impact of a trade war between the United States and China. The Hindu newspaper first reported on Dec. 24 that the Foxconn plant would begin manufacturing various models of the iPhone. Reuters is first to report the size of the investment and the kind of phones to be assembled. Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller declined to comment. Foxconn said it did not comment on matters related to current or potential customers, or any of their products. Lower-end phones Until now, Cupertino, California-based Apple has only assembled the lower-cost SE and 6S models in India through Wistron Corp's local unit in the Bengaluru technology hub. Its sales in India have also been focused on lower-end phones - more than half of its sales volume is driven by models older than the iPhone 8, launched last year, according to technology research firm Counterpoint. Apple launched the pricey iPhone X last year but has cut production of that phone, according to industry analysts, since it began selling the newer versions, iPhone XS and XR, globally this year. Still, it could potentially get Foxconn to make the older iPhone X version in India where it sells cheaper models in a bid to get a bigger share of the world's fastest growing major mobile phone market. Full details of Apple's deal with Foxconn are not yet clear and could change. It is not known if any of the iPhone assembly is being moved from existing Foxconn factories in China and elsewhere. It is also unclear whether the production will be confined to assembly or include any component production in India. Looking beyond China For Apple, widening assembly beyond China is critical to mitigate the risks of the Sino-U.S. trade war. Foxconn, the world's biggest electronics contract manufacturer, is considering setting up a factory in Vietnam, Vietnamese state media reported this month. If that goes ahead, it will be one of the biggest recent steps by a major company to secure an additional production base outside of China. Foxconn has previously admitted the China-U.S. trade spat was its biggest challenge and that its senior executives were making plans to counter the impact. "Widening iPhone manufacturing in India through Foxconn will allow Apple to hedge the risk of any new U.S. trade policies," said Navkendar Singh, an associate research director at International Data Corporation. Indian taxes on import of devices and components have also heightened Apple's headache in a market where it has only a 1 percent share by smartphone shipments. Making more phones locally will help Apple save costly duties and boost Prime Minister Narendra Modi's flagship drive to make India a manufacturing hub, Singh said. Apple shocked investors last month with a lower-than-expected sales forecast for the Christmas quarter that jolted parts suppliers across the world. Foxconn has previously expressed concern over demand for Apple's flagship devices.

'Tech Addicts' Seek Solace in 12 Steps and Rehab

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 23:04
We like to say we're addicted to our phones or an app or some new show on a streaming video service. But for some people, tech gets in the way of daily functioning and self-care. We're talking flunk-your-classes, can't-find-a-job, live-in-a-dark-hole kinds of problems, with depression, anxiety and sometimes suicidal thoughts part of the mix. Suburban Seattle, a major tech center, has become a hub for help for so-called "tech addicts," with residential rehab, psychologists who specialize in such treatment and 12-step meetings. "The drugs of old are now repackaged. We have a new foe," Cosette Rae says of the barrage of tech. A former developer in the tech world, she heads a Seattle area rehab center called reSTART Life, one of the few residential programs in the nation specializing in tech addiction. Use of that word — addiction — when it comes to devices, online content and the like is still debated in the mental health world. But many practitioners agree that tech use is increasingly intertwined with the problems of those seeking help. An American Academy of Pediatrics review of worldwide research found that excessive use of video games alone is a serious problem for as many as 9 percent of young people. This summer, the World Health Organization also added "gaming disorder" to its list of afflictions. A similar diagnosis is being considered in the United States. It can be a taboo subject in an industry that frequently faces criticism for using "persuasive design," intentionally harnessing psychological concepts to make tech all the more enticing. ​One addict's story One 27-year-old man, found through a 12-step program for tech addicts, works in the very industry that peddles the games, videos and other online content that has long been his vice. He does cloud maintenance for a suburban Seattle tech company and constantly finds himself fending off temptation. "I'm like an alcoholic working at a bar," he laments. He spoke on the condition that he not be identified, fearing he might harm his career in an industry he's long loved. As a toddler, he sat on his dad's lap in their Seattle area home as they played simple video games on a Mac Classic II computer. By early elementary school, he got his first Super Nintendo system and spent hours playing Yoshi's Story, a game where the main character searched for "lucky fruit." As he grew, so did one of the world's major tech hubs. Led by Microsoft, it rose from the nondescript suburban landscape and farm fields here, just a short drive from the home he still shares with his mom, who split from her husband when their only child was 11. As a teen, he took an interest in music and acting but recalls how playing games increasingly became a way to escape life. "I go online instead of dealing with my feelings," he says. He'd been seeing a therapist for depression and severe social anxiety. But attending college out of state allowed more freedom and less structure, so he spent even more time online. His grades plummeted, forcing him to change majors, from engineering to business. After graduating in 2016 and moving home, he'd go to a nearby restaurant or the library to use the Wi-Fi, claiming he was looking for a job but having no luck. Instead, he was spending hours on Reddit, an online forum where people share news and comments, or viewing YouTube videos. Sometimes, he watched online porn. ​'Detox' Others who attend a 12-step meeting of the Internet & Tech Addiction Anonymous know the struggle. "I had to be convinced that this was a 'thing,"' says Walker, a 19-year-old from Washington whose parents insisted he get help after video gaming trashed his first semester of college. He agreed to speak only if identified by first name, as required by the 12-step tenets. Help is found at facilities like reSTART. Clients "detox" from tech at a secluded ranch and move on to a group home. They commit to eating well and regular sleep and exercise. They find jobs, and many eventually return to college. They also make "bottom line" promises to give up video games or any other problem content, as well as drugs and alcohol, if those are issues. They use monitored smartphones with limited function — calls, texts and emails and access to maps. The young tech worker didn't go to reSTART. But he, too, has apps on his phone that send reports about what he's viewing to his 12-step sponsor, a fellow tech addict named Charlie, a 30-year-old reSTART graduate. At home, the young man also persuaded his mom to get rid of Wi-Fi to lessen the temptation. He still relapses every couple months, often when he's tired or upset or very bored. He tells himself that his problem isn't as bad as other tech addicts. "Then," the young man says, "I discover very quickly that I am actually an addict, and I do need to do this." Having Charlie to lean on helps. "He's a role model," he says. "He has a place of his own. He has a dog. He has friends." That's what he wants for himself.

Futuristic Fun House Transforms Traditional Games into High Tech Wonders

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 18:40
Imagine being on the bridge of a ship navigating through space with your crew's survival at risk, then stepping onto a river raft to battle aliens in a swamp, and finally flying through the air, all in one night.  All this and more are possible at a futuristic micro amusement park called Two Bit Circus in Los Angeles.  “I think it takes a whole arcade game venue to the next level, and there’s a couple of games I played tonight where I was out of breath and actually sweating,” said visitor Kelly Bentall, who had just finished playing a game where she had to roll a plastic ball and watch a cartoon version of it on a screen, while trying to knock an opponent off a virtual arena. Many of the games at Two Bit Circus can be described as traditional carnival games on steroids where sensors, cameras or virtual reality goggles add to the experience. There is even a robot bartender that mixes drinks for customers.  "I have not had a robot make my drink before. That was actually pretty cool. He even managed to shake it,” said customer John Duncan. Just like a movie theater is a venue for the latest films, the Two Bit Circus is a platform for innovative games. Many of these experiences are created in an in-house workshop.  “We can build stuff here in the morning and test it out there (Two Bit Circus) in the evening,” said co-founder and chief technology officer Eric Gradman, a roboticist who used to build prototypes for the military. “We have a really incredible team of creative people who are always experimenting with new forms of entertainment, and we have the most important ingredient of all — people to test this stuff on.” Two Bit Circus’s other co-founder and chief executive officer is Brent Bushnell, an engineer, entrepreneur and son of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell.  “My dad wants to move in here. He freaking loves this place," Bushnell said. "He comes back. He’s always got ideas — what things we should change, what we should do differently — but he’s obsessed.” The two founders of the high-tech amusement park also happen to be trained circus clowns. “I was touring around the country, doing crazy stuff on stage in front of thousands of people, and this place is a great way to combine those two loves, making stuff and performing,” said Gradman. It is no coincidence that Two Bit Circus is about the size of a department store. As online shopping increases, brick-and-mortar stores are shutting down, leaving large empty spaces that are perfect entertainment venues for innovative games that can be tested and improved.  “We have built it (Two Bit Circus) to be able to just slot right in. And so for me, that brings real scale, right? That format exists in a hundred cities across the country so we can then iterate and test-optimize this version here and then replicate it across the country,” said Bushnell.

Futuristic Fun House Transforms Traditional Games into High Tech Wonders

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 18:30
Technology is very quickly changing entertainment as we know it. While some worry that people are spending too much time on video games and not enough time with other people, there is a place in Los Angeles where visitors can interact with both. It’s called the Two Bit Circus – a funhouse that incorporates technology and games with group play for people of all ages. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has the details.

Interactive TV Lets Viewers Choose Plot and Story Lines

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 12:16
Movie and TV show endings can be a major let down, but what if you could control the storyline as it develops? Eko is an entertainment company that's putting viewers in the director's chair with interactive TV shows and videos. Tina Trinh reports.

Social Media's Year of Falling From Grace

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 09:50
In 2018, technology firms such as Facebook and Google faced more scrutiny and negative press over their handling of data breaches and online speech. The issue may mean new rules and more regulations in the future. The question of who can access personal user data through technology caused many people to rethink how much they trust these companies with their private information. At a recent hearing, House Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy grilled Google over accusations it uses algorithms to suppress conservative voices. "Are America's technology companies serving as instruments of freedom? Or instruments of control? Are they fulfilling the promise of the digital age? Are they advancing the cause of self-government? Or are they serving as instruments of manipulation used by powerful interests and foreign governments to rob the people of their power, agency, and dignity?," he said. At the hearing, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said he runs the U.S. technology giant without political preference. In October, Google acknowledged that several months earlier, it had discovered a data breach involving its Google Plus service, which the company said would be shut down. Pantas Sutardja, chief executive of data storage company LatticeWork Inc., says such scandals are forcing the companies to take a closer look at how they manage and protect user content. "2018 has been a challenging year for tech companies and consumers alike. Company CEOs being called to Congress for hearings and promising profusely to fix the problems of data breach but still cannot do it," said Sutardja. Also this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced tough questions from U.S. lawmakers over a breach that allowed a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, to exploit the data of millions of Facebook users. Zuckerberg apologized to lawmakers, but some legislators say the giant social network cannot be trusted to regulate itself. Separately, the attorney-general for Washington, Karl Racine, said the U.S. capital had sued Facebook over reports involving Cambridge Analytica's use of data from the social media giant. The year saw new revelations that foreign operatives were using social media to secretly spread divisive and often bogus messages in the United States and worldwide. Walt Mossberg, a former tech journalist, says consumers are frustrated. "It doesn't matter to whose benefit they were operating. What bothers people here is that a foreign country, using our social networks, digital products and services that we have come to feel comfortable in, a foreign government has come in and used that against us," he said. The Facebook data breach has prompted companies like Latticework to create new ways for users to protect their information and themselves, Sutardja says. "Despite apologizing profusely about leaking customer data, they can't do anything about it because their real master, their boss is Wall Street," he said. User data was just one area in which tech firms came under criticism.Under pressure, social media companies tightened restrictions on the kinds of speech they tolerate on their sites. And workers pressed managers about their companies' government contracts and treatment of female colleagues. Mossberg says he wants federal law to limit U.S. internet firms' collection and use of personal data. "These are giant companies now. There really are four or five of them that control everything. And governments and citizens of countries around the world need the right to regulate them without closing down free speech. And that's tricky," he said. Mossberg says he has given up Facebook.

Scandal-Plagued Facebook Goes on Charm Offensive in Vietnam   

Tue, 12/25/2018 - 13:33
Before Facebook, Vu Kim Chi thought something was lacking in her job, which is to promote the economy in and around Vietnam's famed Ha Long Bay. Posting updates to her department's website, or photocopying missives to send to constituents, she said, was mostly one-sided. But after she set up an official Facebook page for Quang Ninh province, the conversations started to flow in both directions, between Chi and the local residents or businesses. That's why, when it comes to social media, she thinks more civil servants need to catch up with the rest of the country. "Social media, especially the Facebook application, is really used a lot in Vietnam," said Chi, who is deputy head of the province's investment promotion and support office. "But for public agencies that use it as a tool to interact with people and businesses, it's still not necessarily used a lot." Facebook on charm offensive Even as governments around the world are demanding more accountability and transparency from Facebook, public officials in Vietnam are looking for more ways to use the website. And Facebook is happy to oblige. The company is on something of a charm offensive in Vietnam, where it has roughly 42 million members, nearly half the country. Besides sending top officials to visit Vietnam last year, Facebook has been instructing small businesses on how to sell their products on the site, and now it is giving civil servants like Chi advice for engaging with the public. The chance to win some good will in Vietnam comes at a time when pressures are piling up on Facebook both inside the country and abroad. Globally, it has been accused of complicity in plots to convince voters to vote for Brexit or for candidate Donald Trump, as well as in what the United Nations calls ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The company reportedly paid for research that could damage its critics' and competitors' reputations, as well as gave users' data to dozens of other firms without consent. New cyber law In Vietnam, the government told advertisers to boycott Facebook and other sites in response to users' postings that criticized the one-party state. Next month, the country will enact a cyber law requiring firms to store data domestically, which Facebook opposes. But those troubles were not front and center at a workshop in Ho Chi Minh City this month where a company representative gave bureaucrats tips on making a Facebook page. "We have to understand and put more attention to the social aspect of the platform," said Noudhy Valdryno, who handles government outreach for Facebook. "That means you have to understand your followers, who are they, where do they live, what are their interests?  Then you can formulate an accurate strategy to engage with your followers." The workshop included suggestions for government officials, such as posting updates on Facebook at regular intervals, shooting videos vertically to retain the attention of mobile users, and encouraging conversations among followers on the page. Tech companies welcome The event was an example of how Vietnamese officials are open to working with the tech company. It is so ubiquitous in the Southeast Asian country that when Vietnamese people say "social media" they mean Facebook, and when asked what newspapers they read, they give the answer: Facebook.  "What we're talking about is effective use of technology in this day and age to achieve our goals," said Le Quoc Cuong, vice director of the Ho Chi Minh City department of information and communications. "What we're looking for is being effective, being engaging and enhancing cooperation between the government and the people." Chi says more Facebook data would help her better engage with residents around Quang Ninh, a northeastern province that hugs the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Chinese border on another. She would like regular reports, perhaps every month, with information to help analyze the province's fan page, from key words to number of "likes." So as many people worldwide have begun to decry tech companies for abusing and cashing in on users' data, there are those who still continue to see untapped potential in gathering further data.  

US SpaceX First National Security Mission

Tue, 12/25/2018 - 04:00
SpaceX continues making news in 2018. The company first broke its own record from 2017 when it passed 18 launches in year. On Sunday, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, SpaceX launched another record-setting rocket… this one for U.S. national security. Arash Arabasadi reports.

California Researchers Working on Tomorrow's Battery

Mon, 12/24/2018 - 14:42
Batteries have been around for hundreds of years, but don't go thinking this technology is old hat (old fashioned). Batteries are the future. A team of California Scientists with support from the National Science Foundation are on the cutting edge of building a battery that lasts longer and holds more energy. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

A Small Device with a Big Impact for Blind and Visually Impaired

Sun, 12/23/2018 - 12:57
Some 1.3 billion people live with some form of vision impairment, according to the World Health Organization. A team of innovators at an Israeli technology company has developed a small device to help them. As Laura Sepulveda reports from Jerusalem, the device connects to regular glasses and helps people with visual limitations identify people and products, and read in more than 14 languages.

Spacex Halts Launch of US Military Satellite due to Winds

Sun, 12/23/2018 - 00:20
Elon Musk's SpaceX scrapped Saturday's launch of a long-delayed navigation satellite for the U.S. military due to strong upper-level winds. The next launch attempt will be on Sunday at 8:51 a.m. EST/13:51 UTC, according to Space X officials. The launch would have been the rocket firm's first national security space mission for the United States.

NASA Satellite Will Measure the World's Forests

Fri, 12/21/2018 - 16:32
Forests are often called the lungs of the planet because they produce so much oxygen. But they also store huge amounts of carbon. NASA scientists want to know exactly how much carbon, and so they have just launched a satellite that will finally give them an exact measurement. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

UK Airport Chaos Highlights Difficulty in Stopping Drones

Fri, 12/21/2018 - 02:09
When drones buzzing over the runway forced London's busy Gatwick Airport to shut down, many travelers wondered why it's so hard for authorities to stop such intruders. Shoot them down, some said. Jam their signals, others suggested. Experts say it's not that easy. Britain and the U.S. prohibit drones from being flown too high or too close to airports and other aircraft. In Britain, it is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Still, there is little to stop a drone operator bent on disrupting air traffic, which British officials say was the case with the Gatwick incident that began Wednesday evening. The number of close calls between drones and aircraft has increased dramatically in recent years as the popularity of drones has soared. Basic models for amateurs sell for under $100; larger, more sophisticated ones can cost hundreds more. Britain had 120 reports of close encounters in 2018, up from 93 last year. In 2014, there were six, according to the U.K. Airprox Board, which catalogs air safety incidents. In the United States, there were nearly 2,300 drone sightings at airports in the year ending June 30, according to Federal Aviation Administration records. Runways have been temporarily closed, but an FAA spokesman said he could not recall drones ever leading to the shutdown of a U.S. airport. Drone dangers A drone hit a small charter plane in Canada in 2017; it landed safely. In another incident that same year, a drone struck a U.S. Army helicopter in New York but caused only minor damage. "This has gone from being what a few years ago what we would have called an emerging threat to a more active threat," said Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of askthepilot.com. "The hardware is getting bigger and heavier and potentially more lethal, and so we need a way to control how these devices are used and under what rules." Even small drones could cause severe consequences by damaging a helicopter's rotor or getting sucked into a jet engine. A drone could also crash through a windshield, incapacitating the pilot, though that's mainly seen as a risk to small aircraft. "On an airliner, because of the thickness of the glass, I think it's pretty unlikely, unless it's a very large drone," said John Cox, a former airline pilot and now a safety consultant. Drones that collide with planes could cause more damage than birds of the same size because of their solid motors, batteries and other parts, according to a study released by the FAA. Stopping drones Authorities could capture drones with anti-drone "net guns" that fire lightweight netting, but such equipment can be pricey and have limited range, and it is not widely used. As for taking one down with a rifle, hitting a small, fast-moving object like a drone would be difficult even for a marksman, and the bullet could hit someone, experts say. There's also the risk of damage or injury from a falling drone. Jamming systems could disrupt the signals between drone and operator, but that could interfere with the many vital communication systems in use at an airport, said Marc Wagner, CEO of Switzerland-based Drone Detection Sys. Local laws might also prevent the use of such electronic countermeasures. Wagner said it is OK in Switzerland to use jamming systems, while Britain and the U.S. prohibit them. Dutch police experimented with using eagles to swoop down on drones and pluck them out of the sky over airports or large events, but ended the program last year, reportedly because the birds didn't always follow orders. "The only method is to find the pilot and to send someone to the pilot to stop him," Wagner said. That can be done with frequency spectrum analyzers that can triangulate the drone operator's position, but "the technology is new and it's not commonly used," said Wagner, whose company sells such gear and other counter-drone technology, including radar, jammers and powerful cameras. China's DJI Ltd., the world's biggest manufacturer of commercial drones, and some other makers use GPS-based "geofencing" to automatically prevent drones from flying over airports and other sensitive locations, though the feature is easy to get around. DJI also introduced a feature last year that allows authorities to identify and monitor its drones. It wasn't clear what brand was used in the Gatwick incident. British authorities are planning to tighten regulations by requiring drone users to register, which could make it easier to identify the pilot. U.S. law already requires users to register their drones and get certified as pilots. But Wagner warned: "If somebody wants to do something really bad, he will never register."

DC Sues Facebook Over Cambridge Analytica's Data Use

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 04:02
The attorney general for Washington, D.C., said Wednesday that the nation's capital had sued Facebook over reports involving Cambridge Analytica's use of data from the social media giant. "Facebook failed to protect the privacy of its users and deceived them about who had access to their data and how it was used," Attorney General Karl Racine said in a statement. "Facebook put users at risk of manipulation by allowing companies like Cambridge Analytica and other third-party applications to collect personal data without users' permission." The lawsuit came as Facebook faced new reports that it shared its users' data without their permission. Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump's presidential campaign at one point, gained access to personal data from tens of millions of Facebook's users. The D.C. attorney general said in the lawsuit that this exposed nearly half of the district's residents' data to manipulation for political purposes during the 2016 campaign, and he alleged that Facebook's "lax oversight and misleading privacy settings" had allowed the consulting firm to harvest the information. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook Defends Data Sharing After New Report on Partner Deals

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 00:18
Facebook defended its data sharing practices Wednesday after a report revealing that certain partners of the social network had access to a range of personal information about users and their friends. The New York Times late Tuesday reported that some 150 companies — including powerful partners like Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix and Spotify — could access detailed information about Facebook users, including data about their friends. The report marked yet another potential embarrassment for Facebook, which has been roiled by a series of scandals on data protection and privacy and has been scrutinized over the hijacking of user data in the 2016 US election campaign. Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook's head of developer platforms and programs, said in a blog post early Wednesday that the Times report was about "integration partners" which enabled "social experiences — like seeing recommendations from their Facebook friends — on other popular apps and websites." Papamiltiadis added that "none of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people's permission," and maintained that the deals did not violate a 2012 privacy settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission. According to documents seen by the Times, Facebook allowed Microsoft's Bing search engine to see names of Facebook users' friends without consent and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read private messages." The report said Amazon was able to obtain user names and contact information through their friends, and Yahoo could view streams of friends' posts. While some of the deals date back as far as 2010, the Times said they remained active as late as 2017 and some were still in effect this year. 'We've been public' Papamiltiadis said however that "we've been public about these features and partnerships over the years because we wanted people to actually use them." "They were discussed, reviewed, and scrutinized by a wide variety of journalists and privacy advocates," he said. But he said most of the features are now gone. "Still, we recognize that we've needed tighter management over how partners and developers can access information," he added. Netflix said in a statement the feature was used to make the streaming service "more social" by allowing users to make recommendations to friends, but that it stopped using it in 2015. "At no time did we access people's private messages on Facebook or ask for the ability to do so," Netflix said in an emailed statement. Spotify offered a similar response, indicating the music service "cannot read users' private Facebook inbox messages across any of our current integrations." The Canadian bank RBC, also cited in the New York Times, said the deal with Facebook "was limited to the development of a service that enabled clients to facilitate payment transactions to their Facebook friends," and that it was discontinued in 2015. Facebook has already been called before lawmakers in the US and elsewhere to defend its data policies since news broke this year on the misuse of personal data in 2016 by Cambridge Analytica, a British consultancy working on Donald Trump's campaign. A report prepared for US lawmakers revealed this week showed detailed information on how Russian entities manipulated Facebook and other social networks to support the Trump effort. Senator Brian Schatz said the latest revelations highlight a need for tougher controls on how tech companies handle user data. "It has never been more clear," Schatz tweeted. "We need a federal privacy law. They are never going to volunteer to do the right thing."

EU Gives US Two Months to Name Data Privacy Ombudsman

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 22:46
The European Union on Wednesday gave U.S. President Donald Trump two months to name an ombudsman to tackle EU citizens' complaints under a data protection deal sealed by predecessor Barack Obama's team. Brussels has previously sought assurances the Trump administration is committed to the deal to protect Europeans' personal data held in the United States by internet giants like Google and Facebook. The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said an annual review found that Washington "continues to ensure an adequate level of protection for personal data" under the 2016 Privacy Shield. But it said the United States should "nominate a permanent ombudsperson by February 28, 2019 to replace the one that is currently acting." If this does not happen, the commission warned it could take "appropriate measures" under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which was adopted in May. The privacy shield came into force in August 2016 to replace a previous arrangement that the EU's top court struck down over concerns about U.S. intelligence snooping. "Today's review shows that the Privacy Shield is generally a success," said Andrus Ansip, the Commission vice president for the digital single market. More than 3,850 companies have been certified, including giants Google, Microsoft and IBM, creating "operational ground" to improve how the deal works, he said. During the first review more than a year ago, the Commission said more than 2,400 companies had been certified. "We now expect our American partners to nominate the ombudsperson on a permanent basis, so we can make sure that our EU-US relations in data protection are fully trustworthy," Ansip said in a statement. After the first review, the Commission said the Trump administration had dispelled initial EU doubts about its commitment to the privacy deal despite its "America First" policy. Officials say the Privacy Shield lays down tough rules to prevent U.S. intelligence agencies accessing European data. Companies face penalties if they do not meet EU standards of protection. The European Court of Justice threw out the earlier Safe Harbour arrangement after Austrian activist Max Schrems sued Facebook in Ireland, citing U.S. snooping practices exposed by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.