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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.

As US-China Tensions Build, Silicon Valley Rethinks Bonds

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 22:36
In recent years, the tech industry has looked to China as a key partner to help build and sell cutting-edge devices and services. But rising tensions between Washington and Beijing have Silicon Valley worried it will be caught in the middle of a growing trade war. Over the summer, President Donald Trump slapped $250 million of tariffs on Chinese goods sold in the U.S. and claimed that China offers U.S. businesses an uneven playing field as Beijing seeks to make China into a tech super power. The detention in Canada earlier this month of a Huawei executive for allegedly breaking U.S. sanctions on Iran has made tech executives feel even more vulnerable. China, for its part, denies the U.S. claims and has taken steps to pursue a formal inquiry about the tariffs at the World Trade Organization. A delicate line For the tech industry, the increasing tensions come as it was already walking a delicate line. Tech executives complain about intellectual property theft in China and what they see as unfair conditions for doing business. But the two regions have strengthened their bonds through investment, trade and partnerships in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous cars. The tensions have left tech executives questioning what they can share about their work, said Stanley Kwong, adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. “All of these people are worried if they traveled back and forth, they might be arrested because of the IP, something they know and they talk about in both China, and in the USA,” he said. Silicon Valley firms have complained the relationship “isn’t as reciprocal as it needs to be,” said Sean Randolph, senior director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. The relationship, from some tech firms’ point of view, is about “the extraction of technologies involuntarily from foreign companies to accelerate China's technology leadership,” he said. Critical technologies Chinese money that has helped fuel the current tech boom in Silicon Valley may start drying up. One reason — a new U.S. law, the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA), beefed up oversight of foreign investment and acquisitions of critical technology that are deemed strategically important. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. has expanded powers to block foreign purchases of U.S. firms. “Silicon Valley people have been optimistic for a long time,” said Xiaohua Yang, professor of international business at the University of San Francisco. “But now, they have begun to worry … about the lack of Chinese investment coming to support Silicon Valley technology development.” Lawmakers are concerned that U.S. tech companies, as they pursue the Chinese market or seek Chinese investment, might hand over core technology to the Chinese government, a competitor and sometime adversary on the global stage. The tech industry waits, as what constitutes “critical technologies” under FIRRMA is still being developed. For U.S. entrepreneurs, the changing climate may mean they will become more cautious, said Kwong, who advises startups. “If you want to do business in China, if you're doing consumer products, I say, that's probably fine,” he said. “But let's presume you're doing AI. You better find out exactly what you're doing. You can have AI in a coffee machine, and I don't think that's much to do with defense. If you're doing facial recognition that may be something that's going to have a major problem.” Randolph said that the tech industry has long had an “open market, open platform” approach, with the idea that anyone can come and “we're moving innovation forward globally.” But if tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to escalate, experts say, the very openness of Silicon Valley may be a casualty — even if tech firms stand to benefit if China becomes more open for doing business.

Empowering Refugees Through Energy

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 20:46
Initiative in Africa tests a market approach to foster displaced people's self-reliance.

Pet Cloning the Cutting Edge of Chinese Biotech

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 10:25
The U.S. has had its share of famous on-screen dogs, from Lassie to Benji. In China, the big-screen star is a lovable mutt named 'Juice.' But Juice is getting on in years, so what's a movie company to do? Turn to cutting-edge biotech, of course. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Elon Musk's Boring Company Set to Unveil Its First Los Angeles-Area Tunnel

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 09:44
The Boring Company, Elon Musk's underground transit venture, planned an unveiling of its first tunnel Tuesday, two years after the billionaire entrepreneur complained about Los Angeles traffic and vowed to "just start digging" as a remedy. Musk has advertised his 2-mile (3.2 km) tunnel as the first step toward developing a high-speed subterranean network for whisking vehicles and pedestrians below the congested streets of the second-largest city in the United States. The tunnel, an initial proof-of-concept, has been excavated along a path that runs not through Los Angeles but beneath the tiny adjacent municipality of Hawthorne, where Musk's Boring Company and his SpaceX rocket firm are headquartered. In a tweet earlier this month, Musk said the big reveal would include "autonomous transport cars & ground to tunnel elevator cars." Boring's website describes a system of passenger- and automobile-carrying "skates" that can zip through the tunnels by way of electric power once they are lowered underground from street level. Musk, best known as head of the Tesla Inc electric car manufacturer and energy company, launched his foray into public transit after complaining in December 2016 that L.A.'s traffic was "driving me nuts," promising then to "build a boring machine and just start digging." In May, the company gave the world a preview of the first tunnel, posting a fast-forward video of the interior shot by a camera traveling the length of the cylindrical passageway, which measures about 12 feet (3.7 m) in diameter. Musk also created a stir by promising free trips through the tunnel once it opened — "like a weird little Disney ride in L.A." — to get public feedback before proceeding with a larger system. It remained doubtful, however, whether permits Musk received to dig what was then billed as an experimental tunnel would allow the public inside. "There will be no cars or people in the research tunnel," according to the minutes of a special Hawthorne City Council meeting in August 2017 to review an easement for the project. On its website, the Boring company said that "due to unbelievably high demand, tours through the Hawthorne test tunnel are by invitation only." If successful, the Hawthorne tunnel is envisioned as eventually connecting to a network of other tunnels, yet to be approved or built. Last month, the Boring Company scrapped plans for a slightly longer 2.7-mile segment under a West Los Angeles neighborhood, settling litigation brought by community groups opposed to that project. But Musk's company announced it was moving ahead with a proposed tunnel across town to connect Dodger Stadium, home of the city's Major League Baseball team, to the existing subway line. In June, Boring was selected by the city of Chicago to build a 17-mile underground transit system linking that city's downtown to O'Hare International Airport. The company also has proposed an East Coast Loop that would run from Washington, D.C., out to the Maryland suburbs.

French Pair Invent Plastic-to-fuel Recycler Fit for African Bush

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 09:35
A French actor and a self-taught inventor have designed a low-tech machine that converts plastic waste into diesel and petrol, which they say could help fight pollution and provide fuel for remote communities in developing countries. Proponents of plastics-to-fuel technology say the sector could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the next five years, and that by melting plastics into fuel they are providing a solution to the planet's plastic waste crisis. Opponents worry that the process creates harmful fumes. "The idea is to encourage the collection of waste before it ends up in the oceans with a machine that fits in a shipping container and can create an income," said Samuel Le Bihan, who has starred in French movies such as "Disco" and "Mesrine." For three-and-a-half years Le Bihan has bankrolled the development of the crude machine — dubbed Chrysalis — in a hangar in Puget-Theniers in the hills behind the Riviera city of Nice. Its designer is a 35-year-old self-taught scientist. Plastic pellets are fed into a closed reactor where they are broken down at 450 degrees centigrade to produce diesel, gasoline and a carbon residue that can be used in crayons. "A kilo of plastic gives a liter of liquid. It's separated between diesel and petrol," said creator Cristofer Costes. With 50,000 euro additional financing from the local authority, the two men plan to create a larger prototype capable of converting 50 kilograms of plastic into fuel every 80 minutes. Simple in design, it will be reparable even in the depths of the African bush, said Costes. Every year about 260 million tons of plastic is produced. U.N. data shows eight million tons of plastic — bottles, packaging and other waste — enters the ocean each year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain. Conservationists have warned that plastic pollution in the oceans could outweigh fish by 2050. Similar technologies to the Chrysalis have already been developed by companies looking to help solve one of the greatest environmental problems facing humanity. British firm Recycling Technologies says their machine — the RT7000 — can transform hard-to-recycle waste plastic into a novel raw material, called Plaxx, which can then be re-used by the plastics industry. "If people see that plastic waste has a value they won't chuck it away," said Le Bihan. "I can't imagine how many tons of plastic waste there is lying around that we could treat."

Look Ma, No hands: A New Way to Surf Your Smartphone

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 06:36
Researchers at online shopping site eBay have come up with a way to surf apps on your smartphone without having to use your fingers. Their solution? Use your head, literally. Michelle Quinn has more on the newest way to scroll through your phone, hands not required.

With Click of Button, Britain's Homeless Crowdfund Their Way to Work

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 02:00
When Hana fled to Britain with her son from East Africa, she was grateful to have found safety from persecution and a roof over her head in her sister's tiny London apartment. It should have been a stop-gap, but a year on, the four still live together in cramped conditions, with Hana sharing a bed with her young son, and her sister doing the same with her toddler. "When I came to Britain, I struggled with everything. It's very hard to be a single mum and homeless," said Hana, who did not share her full name for fear of repercussions. With no job prospects, she had no chance of finding her own home in London, where rents are among the highest in the world. Homelessness has been rising in England for nearly a decade, with over 82,000 families in temporary accommodation, including more than 123,000 children, government data shows. But 32-year-old Hana is hoping to buck that trend, after a crowdfunding campaign by social enterprise Beam paid for her to study beauty therapy. "It's been a dramatic change, now I will be a professional beauty therapist. Straight away I want to start a job, the day I finish my studies," Hana said in a phone interview. She is one of about 50 homeless people who secured employment training through Beam, which it says is the world's first purpose-built platform that helps homeless people crowdfund donations through their online profile. The participants, who are referred to Beam by homelessness charities, are also supported by caseworkers throughout their studies and job hunt. "We really want to return people to a stage of independence. They should never be defined by their homelessness," said Beam founder Alex Stephany, who launched the platform last year. He said each crowdfunding campaign is fully funded before a new one is launched to ensure each person has the chance to take a training course of their choice, be it accounting, dental nursing or carpentry. "There are lots of people who need help, and also lots of people who want to help, and technology has a really important part to play in making it safe and easy for people to do that," Stephany said in an interview. 'Housing emergency' Homelessness charity Shelter, which partners with Beam, blames rising private rents, a freeze on benefits and a shortage of social housing for the sharp increase in homelessness. "We see destitution every day and desperation from people. People who are being priced out of the rental market. We're calling it a housing emergency, it's atrocious," said Alison Mohammed, Shelter's director of services. Discrimination against homeless people has also made it difficult for them to secure rental properties, she said. A hotel in the northern English city of Hull was criticized this week after it canceled paid bookings made by a local charity to give rough sleepers a bed for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 'Message from heaven' Mohammed said initiatives like Beam can harness the public's goodwill to help homeless people, but it is just "one piece of the puzzle." "Anything that can tap into the public's wish to do something about homelessness is a good idea," she said in a phone interview. "It's not going to solve the lack of social housing, but it is going to help people who have got to a position in their life where they can take that step," Mohammed said. Beam said a dozen people had so far gained employment and the group hopes to expand beyond London and roll out the initiative across the country. For Hana, who will finish her beauty therapy studies next year, knowing that hundreds of strangers care about her well-being and future in Britain has been a source of comfort. She is confident she will find her own place to live too. "I don't know these people and I don't even see their faces, but they encourage me very much. It's like a message from heaven," she said.

Grocery Store Using Unmanned Vehicles for Delivery

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 19:28
U.S. supermarket chain Kroger Co said on Tuesday it has started using unmanned autonomous vehicles to deliver groceries Scottsdale, Arizona in partnership with Silicon Valley startup Nuro. The delivery service follows a pilot program started by the companies in Scottsdale in August and involved Nuro's R1, a custom unmanned vehicle. The R1 uses public roads and has no driver and is used to only transport goods. Kroger's deal with Nuro underscores the stiff competition in the U.S. grocery delivery market with supermarket chains angling for a bigger share of consumer spending. Peers Walmart Inc and Amazon.com Inc have also invested heavily in their delivery operations by expanding their offerings and shortening delivery times. Walmart, Ford Motor Co and delivery service Postmates Inc said last month they would collaborate to deliver groceries and other goods to Walmart customers and that could someday use autonomous vehicles. Kroger said the service would be available in Scottsdale at its unit Fry's Food Stores for $5.95 with no minimum order requirement for same-day or next-day deliveries.

With Tensions Rising Between US and China, Silicon Valley Rethinks its Bonds

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 11:44
American tech companies have long looked to China as a key partner to help build and sell cutting-edge devices and services. But tensions are rising between Washington and Beijing, and Silicon Valley may be caught in the middle. Michelle Quinn reports.

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