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Updated: 14 min 31 sec ago

Technology Ethics Campaigners Offer Plan to Fight 'Human Downgrading'

2 hours 35 min ago
Technology firms should do more to connect people in positive ways and steer away from trends that have tended to exploit human weaknesses, ethicists told a meeting of Silicon Valley leaders on Tuesday. Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin are the co-founders of the nonprofit Center for Humane Technology and the ones who prompted Apple and Google to nudge phone users toward reducing their screen time. Now they want companies and regulators to focus on reversing what they called "human downgrading," which they see as at the root of a dozen worsening problems, by reconsidering the design and financial incentives of their systems. Before a hand-picked crowd of about 300 technologists, philanthropists and others concerned with issues such as internet addiction, political polarization, and the spread of misinformation on the web, Harris said Silicon Valley was too focused on making computers surpass human strengths, rather than worrying about how they already exploit human weaknesses. If that is not reversed, he said, "that could be the end of human agency," or free will. Problems include the spread of hate speech and conspiracy theories, propelled by financial incentives to keep users engaged alongside the use of powerful artificial intelligence on platforms like Alphabet Inc's YouTube, Harris said. YouTube and other companies have said they are cracking down on extremist speech and have removed advertising revenue-sharing from some categories of content. Active Facebook communities can be a force for good but they also aid the dissemination of false information, the campaigners said. For example, a vocal fringe that oppose vaccines, believing contrary to scientific evidence that they cause autism, has led to an uptick in diseases that were nearly eradicated. Facebook said in March it would reduce the distribution of content from groups promoting vaccine hoaxes. In an interview after his speech, Harris said that what he has called a race to the bottom of the brainstem - manipulation of human instincts and emotions - could be reversed. For example, he said that Apple and Google could reward app developers who help users, or Facebook could suggest that someone showing signs of depression call a friend who had previously been supportive. Tech personalities attending included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, early Facebook funder turned critic Roger McNamee and MoveOn founders Joan Blades and Wes Boyd. Tech money is also backing the Center, including charitable funds started by founders of Hewlett Packard, EBay, and Craigslist. The big companies, Harris said, "can change the incentives."

Multisensory VR Allows Users to Step Into a Movie and Interact with Objects

4 hours 20 min ago
Imagine stepping into a movie or virtual world and being able to interact with what’s there. That’s now possible through the magic of Hollywood combined with virtual reality technology.  For $20, the company Dreamscape takes visitors through a multi-sensory journey. Currently in Los Angeles, creators say they plan on opening more virtual reality venues across the U.S. and eventually to other countries.   Once visitors step through these doors, they leave behind reality and embark on a journey to another world. “We see Dreamscape as a travel agency that will take you on adventures that transcend time, space and dimension,” Bruce Vaughn, Dreamscape Immersive chief executive officer, said.    Vaughn used to work on Disney theme park attractions and special effects.   Imagine a trip to a zoo filled with alien creatures from outer space or going on a treasure hunt or an underwater adventure. That's the world visitor Zach Green stepped into when he entered a Dreamscape room.  “I kind of forgot I was in Earth for a second and I was actually under the ocean,” Green expressed. Dreamscape makes it possible by combining Hollywood storytelling with the expertise of building theme parks. These ingredients are brought to life through virtual reality says motion picture screenwriter and producer Walter Parkes who is also co-founder and chairman of the board of Dreamscape.    “Our technology allows us at Dreamscape to actually track your full body, all of your movements and render you in an avatar. We use the word registration where we're actually registering you as a human presence inside a virtual world is very unique,” Parkes said. Visitor Robin McMillan is wowed by the experience. “I think it’s probably the future of entertainment in terms of a completely immersive experience. You kind of forget you're in a room,” McMillan said. Before stepping into the virtual world, travelers would first have to put on four sensors, one on each hand and one on each foot, have a backpack on and virtual reality goggles. Now they’re ready to step inside.  “We blur that line between the physical and the virtual by letting you actually reach out and pet an alien creature or have a torch that actually lights your way and it’s physically there,” Vaughn said. That’s not all. Each person’s backpack computer and the sensors in the room trigger special effects such as wind, mist and ground vibrations.  Six people at a time can take part in the 10 minute experience interact. The company is already planning new worlds for travelers to visit.

New Zealand, France Plan Bid to Tackle Extremism on Social Media

7 hours 36 min ago
In the wake of the Christchurch attack, New Zealand said on Wednesday that it would work with France in an effort to stop social media from being used to promote terrorism and violent extremism. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement that she will co-chair a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on May 15 that will seek to have world leaders and CEOs of tech companies agree to a pledge, called the Christchurch Call, to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. A lone gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, while livestreaming the massacre on Facebook. Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist, has been charged with 50 counts of murder for the mass shooting. "It's critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism, and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism," Ardern said in the statement. "This meeting presents an opportunity for an act of unity between governments and the tech companies," she added. The meeting will be held alongside the Tech for Humanity meeting of G7 digital ministers, of which France is the chair, and France's separate Tech for Good summit, both on 15 May, the statement said. Ardern said at a press conference later on Wednesday that she has spoken with executives from a number of tech firms including Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Google and few other companies. "The response I've received has been positive. No tech company, just like no government, would like to see violent extremism and terrorism online," Ardern said at the media briefing, adding that she had also spoken with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg directly on the topic. A Facebook spokesman said the company looks forward to collaborating with government, industry and safety experts on a clear framework of rules. "We're evaluating how we can best support this effort and who among top Facebook executives will attend," the spokesman said in a statement sent by email. Facebook, the world's largest social network with 2.7 billion users, has faced criticism since the Christchurch attack that it failed to tackle extremism. One of the main groups representing Muslims in France has said it was suing Facebook and YouTube, a unit of Alphabet's Google, accusing them of inciting violence by allowing the streaming of the Christchurch massacre on their platforms. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said last month that the company was looking to place restrictions on who can go live on its platform based on certain criteria.

Multisensory VR Allows Users to Step Into a Movie and Interact With Objects

8 hours 54 min ago
Imagine stepping into a movie or virtual world and being able to interact with what’s there. That’s now possible through the magic of Hollywood combined with virtual reality technology.  For $20, the company Dreamscape takes visitors through a multi-sensory journey. Currently in Los Angeles, creators say they plan on opening more virtual reality venues across the U.S. and eventually to other countries.  VOA’s Elizabeth Lee shows us what to expect.

US White Nationalists Barred by Facebook Find Haven on Russia Site

8 hours 54 min ago
With U.S. social media companies tightening their content policies in the wake of the recent mosque shootings in New Zealand, some extremist groups are getting pushed to the margins of the internet. Researchers say that has turned Russian social media platforms such as VKontakte, or VK, into safe harbors for an ever greater number of white nationalists seeking to communicate with each other and get their messages out. VOA's Anush Avetisyan has more.

Google's Wing Aviation Gets FAA OK for Drone Deliveries

10 hours 15 min ago
Google affiliate Wing Aviation has received federal approval allowing it to make commercial deliveries by drone.  It's the first time a company has gotten a federal air carrier certification for drone deliveries.  The approval from the Federal Aviation Administration means that Wing can operate commercial drone flights in part of Virginia, which it plans to begin later this year. The FAA said Tuesday that the company met the agency's safety requirements by participating in a pilot program in Virginia with the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and Virginia Tech, and by conducting thousands of flights in Australia over the past several years. “This is an important step forward for the safe testing and integration of drones into our economy,'' Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement.  Wing said the approval "means that we can begin a commercial service delivering goods from local businesses to homes in the United States.'' The company didn't name any businesses that would take part in commercial deliveries. It said it plans to spend the next several months demonstrating its technology and answering questions from people and businesses in Blacksburg and Christiansburg, Virginia.  Wing said it will "solicit feedback with the goal of launching a delivery trial later this year.'' Wing said that to win FAA certification it had to show that one of its drone deliveries would pose less risk to pedestrians than the same trip made in a car. The company said its drones have flown more than 70,000 test flights and made more than 3,000 deliveries to customers in Australia. The company is touting many benefits from deliveries by electric drones. It says medicine and food can be delivered faster, that drones will be especially helpful to consumers who need help getting around, and that they can reduce traffic and emissions.  Drone usage in the U.S. has grown rapidly in some industries such as utilities, pipelines and agriculture. But drones have faced more obstacles in delivering retail packages and food because of federal regulations that bar most flights over crowds of people and beyond sight of the operator without a waiver from the FAA. The federal government recently estimated that about 110,000 commercial drones were operating in the U.S., and that number is expected to zoom to about 450,000 in 2022.  Amazon is working on drone delivery, a topic keen to CEO Jeff Bezos. Delivery companies including UPS and DHL have also conducted tests.

Twitter Shares Jump; Growth Attributed to Fight Against Abuse

17 hours 39 min ago
Shares in Twitter Inc jumped 13 percent Tuesday after the social media company reported quarterly revenue above analyst estimates, which executives said was the result of weeding out spam and abusive posts and targeting ads better. New ad formats, partnerships with content providers like the U.S. National Basketball Association and efforts to patrol abusive content are helping Twitter better compete for advertising dollars, executives said. Social media companies have been under pressure over privacy concerns and political influence activity. Twitter has removed thousands of spam and suspicious accounts, which it blamed for sequential declines in monthly users in recent quarters. Twitter executives said they saw opportunities for selling ads that earn revenue when users visit websites or download apps, citing success with major brands like Walt Disney Co. The company is looking to grow its sales team in 2019 to better serve big advertisers. "Something where you see a blending of performance and brand is the Star Trek ad that Disney is running right now, where I click through to make sure that I'd be notified when more information was available about the next Star Wars," Twitter Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal told analysts. Twitter said pre-roll ads, or promotional messages that play before videos, are also growing. The company said its monthly active users (MAU) rose 9 million to 330 million from the previous quarter, much better than Wall Street's average estimate that it would lose 2.2 million users, according to IBES data from Refinitiv. Still, MAUs were down 6 million from a year earlier. It was Twitter's last quarter of disclosing MAUs. From now on it will only provide "monetizable" daily active users (mDAUs), created to measure people exposed to advertising and exclude those who access Twitter via text messages or aggregating sites like TweetDeck. For the first quarter, Twitter said mDAUs rose to 134 million, up 12 percent from a year ago. Analysts were encouraged by signs the company had found ways to sustainably grow users and revenue, but said the new way of measuring users could make comparisons with rivals like Facebook Inc more difficult. "People are not impressed with a made up metric and their reluctance to give us actual users," said analyst Michael Pachter at Wedbush Securities. "I don't think the stock can get out of its own way until they come clean and report the same metrics everyone else does." Forecast largely below Wall Street For the first quarter, Twitter's revenue rose 18 percent to $787 million from the year-ago quarter, topping analyst estimates of $776.1 million. But Twitter also forecast revenue for the second quarter largely below analyst estimates, and said that it would continue to spend heavily on cleaning up Twitter as well as new ad products. Ad sales jumped 18 percent to $679 million. In the United States, ad revenue rose by 26 percent. Total operating expense including cost of revenue rose by 18 percent from the first quarter a year ago. The company reiterated that operating expenses would grow about 20 percent in 2019. Twitter reported quarterly profit of $191 million, or 25 cents a share, compared with $61 million, or 8 cents per share, a year earlier. Excluding a $124.4 million tax benefit, the company earned 9 cents per share. The results appeared to catch the attention of U.S. President Donald Trump, who called for the creation of "more, and fairer" social media companies, repeating his claim that Twitter is biased against Republicans, without presenting evidence. "We enforce the Twitter Rules dispassionately and equally for all users, regardless of their background or political affiliation," a Twitter representative said. "We are constantly working to improve our systems and will continue to be transparent in our efforts."

Will Smith, NASA, Fortnite Among 2019 Webby Award Winners

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 21:30
Actor Will Smith, NASA, Fortnite and Disney are among the 2019 Webby Award winners for internet excellence. The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences announced the winners Tuesday. Smith's The Jump won a Webby for events and live stream video while Disney was chosen the WebbyMedia Company of the Year for earning the most honors across all Webby categories with 32 wins overall. Fortnite is recognized in the game category, and NASA won for best overall social presence. Actress Issa Rae is the Webby video person of the year for using the internet to showcase breakthrough content from diverse creators. Activist Greta Thunberg scored a Webby for social movement of the year for igniting the #FridaysForFuture global movement for climate justice. The 23rd annual Webby Awards will be presented in New York City on May 13.

EU Wary of Fake Online Accounts as Europe Elections Approach

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 21:08
The European Union is praising Facebook, Google and Twitter for tackling disinformation while urging the social media giants to do more in clamping down on fake accounts. Under an EU code of conduct, the three companies report routinely on their efforts to stop election interference. Facebook, for one, has been criticized for being a tool for foreign interference in elections. Tuesday's reports say Facebook, Google and Twitter are tightening advertising policy and surveillance, particularly with election-targeted ads. But the commission urges them to share fake account data with outside experts and researchers. Millions of people across the 28-nation bloc will vote in the May 23-26 European Parliament elections. Polls show nationalist and populist parties could make significant gains, while mainstream parties would lose seats but retain control over the assembly.

Samsung Delays Launch of Folding Galaxy Smartphone

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 09:20
Samsung said Monday it was delaying the launch of its folding smartphone after trouble with handsets sent to reviewers. Some reviewers who got their hands on the Galaxy Fold early reported problems with screens breaking. Samsung said it decided to put off this week's planned release of the Fold after some reviews "showed us how the device needs further improvements." The South Korean consumer electronics giant planned to announce a new release date for the Galaxy Fold in the coming weeks. Initial analysis of reported problems with Galaxy Fold screens showed they could be "associated with impact on the top and bottom exposed areas of the hinge," Samsung said. There was also an instance where unspecified "substances" were found inside a Galaxy Fold smartphone with a troubled display, according to the company. "We will take measures to strengthen the display protection," Samsung said. "We will also enhance the guidance on care and use of the display including the protective layer." A handful of U.S.-based reporters were given the flagship Galaxy Fold phones, priced at $1,980, ahead of the model's official release, and they reported screen issues within days of using the devices. Samsung spent nearly eight years developing the Galaxy Fold, which is part of the leading smartphone maker's strategy to propel growth with groundbreaking gadgets. The company essentially gave reviewers a "beta product" without enough information, such as not to peel off a protective coating meant to be permanent, according to independent technology analyst Rob Enderle. "It was all avoidable for a company the size of Samsung," Enderle said. The failure of a "halo product" meant to showcase innovation and quality could tarnish the brand and send buyers to rivals. "If a halo product fails, people don't trust that you build quality stuff," Enderle said. "It can do incredible damage. And Huawei is moving up like a rocket, so this could be good for Huawei." Surviving life Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi told AFP that a Galaxy Fold she reviewed worked fine, performing even in sometimes messy situations that arise in everyday life. She wondered if some problems with smartphones reviewed were due to dust, moisture or other material getting into handsets through small openings at the tops and bottoms of hinges. "If stuff gets in there, it can make its way under the screen," Milanesi said. "There seems to be a kind of real-life test that maybe didn't occur." Testing folding phones in a lab is a much different scenario than challenging them "in the wild" where they need to endure pockets, handbags, greasy food, spilled coffee and more, the analyst noted. Samsung may also need to do more to convey how folding screens warrant more careful handling than stiff displays that have been improved over generations of smartphones. Milanesi did not expect a slight delay in the launch of the Galaxy Fold to be a major setback for Samsung, saying that the model was unlikely to be a big driver of sales given its price and that services or apps are still being adapted to the new type of smartphone. Samsung smartphones tuned to work with super-speedy fifth-generation telecommunications networks are more important to the company's bottom line on the near horizon, according to the analyst. "It is still early days for 5G, but that is the product that is going to make a difference for Samsung this year," Milanesi said. Samsung is the world's biggest smartphone maker, and earlier this month launched the 5G version of its top-end Galaxy S10 device. Adding to Samsung woes Despite the recent announcements about its new high-end devices, Samsung has warned of a more than 60 percent plunge in first-quarter operating profit in the face of weakening markets. The firm is also no stranger to device issues. Its reputation suffered a major blow after a damaging worldwide recall of its Galaxy Note 7 devices over exploding batteries in 2016, which cost the firm billions of dollars and shattered its global brand image. Samsung originally planned to release the Galaxy Fold as scheduled on April 26. While Samsung's device was not the first folding handset, the smartphone giant was expected to help spark demand and potentially revive a sector that has been struggling for new innovations. Other folding devices have been introduced by startup Royole and by Chinese-based Huawei. Samsung Electronics is the flagship subsidiary of Samsung Group, by far the biggest of the family-controlled conglomerates that dominate business in the world's 11th-largest economy, and it is crucial to South Korea's economic health. The company has enjoyed record profits in recent years despite a series of setbacks, including the jailing of its de facto chief.

Sri Lanka Shuts Down Social Media After Terror Attack

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 05:06
People in Sri Lanka are experiencing a second day without access to some of the most popular social media sites within the country, after the government shut down the services in the wake of a terror attack that killed nearly 300 people and injured hundreds on Easter Sunday. Facebook and its properties — Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — were blocked. Access to Snapchat was turned off, as was Viper, a popular chat application.  The government said it blocked access to the sites because false news reports were spreading through social media. A lack of trust  Sri Lanka's shutdown of social media is a "wake-up call," said Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, a digital advocacy and journalism organization.  The shutdown reflects governments' worldwide growing mistrust of Facebook, Google and other digital platforms during periods of crisis, he said. "What's different to me is this sense that enough is enough' with the internet companies. The narrative up to three years ago was that technology companies can help us in times of crisis," he said. "There really is a shift in the public conversation of what we expect from technology companies — from a sense that they are positive forces to ones that are more complicated and possibly negative."  Shutdowns are becoming more common after politically sensitive events such as elections, said Peter Micek with Access Now, a digital rights group. What appears to be changing is that "authorities are putting tragedies such as a terrorist attack or a disaster in the same bucket as politically sensitive events," Micek said. "I don't know how governments can communicate with their constituencies with these media bans in place. They only increase the risks to health and safety."  Social media-fueled unrest Sri Lankans have experienced social media shutdowns in the past. In March 2018, Sri Lanka turned off access for more than eight days after anti-Muslim riots that left three people dead. The restrictions then were at first accepted by many, said Alp Toker, executive director of Netblocks, a digital rights group based in London that monitors government shutdowns. There was a sense that social media was fueling the flames. But citizens quickly clamored for access to be restored, he said.  "People realized they are attached to the platforms," Toker said.  Facebook's safety check  A Facebook spokesperson said that the company is "working to support first responders and law enforcement, as well as to identify and remove content which violates our standards. We are aware of the government's statement regarding the temporary blocking of social media platforms." After the terror attacks in Sri Lanka, Facebook turned on its Safety Check service, which asks people in the affected area to report they are safe. It is unclear if anyone in the country is able to access the site. 

With 5G on the Horizon, Researchers Build Experimental Network in Harlem

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 05:02
Fifth generation mobile networks, better known as “5G,” promise ultra-fast connections and more reliability. But getting these networks up and running won’t happen overnight, and only a handful of U.S. cities have initial access. New York City is building an experimental network that tests the limits of 5G and beyond. VOA reporter Tina Trinh explains.

Melinda Gates Talks 'Brash' Microsoft Culture in New Book

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 03:00
Looking back at her time as an early Microsoft employee, Melinda Gates said the brash culture at the famously tough, revolutionary tech company made her want to quit, but that she didn't discuss it with her boyfriend, and later her husband, Bill Gates, the company CEO who embodied that culture. "That wasn't my job to do that at the time," Gates said in an interview with The Associated Press, adding that she drew "bright lines" around the office and home in order to work there for nine years before she left to have children. Her new book, "The Moment of Lift," is a memoir and manifesto on women and power from the former tech business executive, outspoken feminist and public supporter of the #MeToo movement. The Associated Press reviewed an advanced copy of the book ahead of its release Tuesday. All book proceeds will be donated to charity. Missing from the memoir is how her relationship with Gates affected her experience at Microsoft. And she said it's difficult to look back to 30 years ago to say how things might be different today if he had made a move on an employee at work, back when the company was 1% of its current size. "It's impossible to project how that was different," she said. Gates didn't say in the interview if she ever had doubts about starting a relationship with her company CEO. The book trails her life from Catholic school girl in Texas, to young tech leader at Microsoft; and from her private struggles as the wife of a dominating public icon and stay-at-home mom with three kids, to finding her professional purpose as a champion of women through venture capital and philanthropy. The Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's $50 billion endowment makes it the world's largest private foundation. Much of its resources are spent on global health and development, which informed the many academic interpretations of world poverty issues that make up the majority of the book. Illustrated by vivid, heartbreaking anecdotes on how those problems cause death and suffering, it is told from her extraordinary perch as one of the world's richest people. And it's also part celebrity memoir that delves into her personal life. She won Bill Gates' heart after meeting at a work dinner, sharing a mutual love of puzzles and beating him at a math game. Their children enrolled in school under her maiden name, "French," to give them anonymity. At a time when she was still discovering how gender roles were engrained in her, he offered to do school drop-offs, which then influenced other fathers to take on the task. On women and power, Gates outlines her agenda tackling poverty in developing nations and evolution from reluctant to proud feminist pushing for equality in the American workplace after a largely positive but also at times frustrating experience at Microsoft. Melinda Gates said she learned to adapt by being herself despite Microsoft's abrasive style because she loved the work while she was there in the 1980s and 1990s. She said she recruited some of the best in the company who appreciated her kinder leadership style. She also describes how the couple evolved to become more and more equal since starting the foundation together in 2000. She gives Gates feedback often and is adamant about creating a collaborative culture at their powerful nonprofit. "Bill and I are equal partners," Melinda Gates said. "Men and women should be equal at work."

Tesla Shows Off Self-Driving Technology to Investors

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 02:14
Tesla broadcast a web presentation on Monday to update investors about its self-driving strategy as Chief Executive Elon Musk tries to show that the electric car maker's massive investment in the sector will pay off. Global carmakers, large technology companies and an array of startups are developing self-driving — including Alphabet Inc's Waymo and Uber Technologies Inc — but experts say it will be years before the systems are ready for deployment. Musk previously forecast that by 2018 cars would go "from your driveway to work without you touching anything." Teslas still require human intervention and are not considered fully self-driving, according to industry standards. The webcast, scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. PT (1800 GMT), was delayed and Tesla showed a repeating video of its vehicles for 30 minutes. Teslas have been involved in a handful of crashes, some of them fatal, involving the use of the company's AutoPilot system. The system has automatic steering and cruise control but requires driver attention at the wheel. Tesla has been criticized by safety groups for being unclear about the need for "hands-on" driving. The company also sells a "full self-driving option" for an additional $5,000, explained on Tesla's website as "automatic driving from highway on-ramp to off-ramp," automatic lane changes, the ability to autopark and to summon a parked car. Coming later in 2019 is the ability to recognize traffic lights and stop signs, and perform automatic driving on city streets, says Tesla. But Tesla's use of the term "full self-driving" still garners criticism, as the option is not yet "Level 4," or fully autonomous by industry standards, in which the car can handle all aspects of driving in most circumstances with no human intervention. Tesla says its cars have the necessary hardware for full self-driving in most circumstances, and Musk said in February he was certain that Tesla would be "feature complete" for full self-driving in 2019, although drivers would still need to pay attention until the system's reliability improved. Tesla reports first-quarter earnings on Wednesday. That is also the deadline by which Musk and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are supposed to settle their dispute over Musk's use of Twitter.

Ford Unveils New Electric Fleet

Sun, 04/21/2019 - 13:58
Ford is showing off its new fleet of electric vehicles. Some of the standouts include a new hybrid plug-in and the promise of a new, all-electric model by 2022. The U.S. automaker plans to have a fleet of 40 different electric vehicles on the roads in the next three years. VOA'S Kevin Enochs reports.

The Future of Farming: Robots Tend Crops and Bovines Go 5G

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 12:40
British agriculture is going high-tech. Farmers recently tested cutting-edge technology like robots that autonomously tend fields and wireless cattle that may connect faster to the farm than you to your favorite app. Incoming message from Arash Arabasadi.

China's Political System Helps Advance Its Artificial Intelligence

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 01:14
Recent technological advances demonstrated by China have started an intense debate on whether it is set to take a lead in the field of artificial intelligence, or AI, which has extensive business and military applications. U.S. concerns about China's AI advances have also influenced, in part, the ongoing trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing. Both the United States and European Union are taking measures to stop information leaks that are reportedly helping Chinese companies at the expense of Western business. But many analysts are saying that Chinese corporate and defense-related research in areas like AI and 5G wireless technologies can thrive on their own even if information from the Western world is shut off. China is already reportedly leading in several segments of businesses like autonomous vehicles, facial recognition and certain kinds of drones. The U.S.-based Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence recently captured attention when it reported that China is a close second after the United States when it comes to producing frequently-cited research papers on artificial intelligence. The U.S. contribution is 29%, and China accounts for 26% of such papers. "The U.S. still is ahead in AI development capabilities, but the gap between the U.S. and China is closing rapidly because of the significant new AI investments in China," Bart Selman, president-elect of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, a professional organization, told VOA. Political advantage Chinese President Xi Jinping has in recent months encouraged Communist leaders to "ensure that our country marches in the front ranks when it comes to theoretical research in this important area of AI, and occupies the high ground in critical and AI core technologies." He also asked them to "ensure that critical and core AI technologies are firmly grasped in our own hands." Analysts said China's political system and its government's eagerness to support the technological advancement were key reasons it could build infrastructure such as cloud computing and a software engineering workforce, and become a big player in artificial intelligence. Chinese companies enjoy special advantages in deploying new technology like facial recognition, which is often difficult in democratic countries like the U.S., said William Carter, deputy director and fellow in the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "China does have strengths in terms of application development and deployment, and has the potential to take the lead in the deployment of some technologies like autonomous vehicles and facial recognition where ethical, social and policy hurdles may impede deployment in the U.S. and other parts of the world," Carter said. China's capabilities in image and facial recognition are possibly the best in the world, partly because government controls have made it easier to generate data from a wide range of sources like banks, mobile phone companies and social media. "These capabilities arise out of the use of deep learning on very large data sets. In general, China has the advantage of having more real world data to train AI systems on ... than any other country," Selman said. Other areas where China has shown significant advances are natural language processing (in Chinese only) and drone (unmanned aerial vehicle) swarming. "China also has unique capabilities that are not found in the U.S. or Europe. I'm thinking of electronic payment platforms [e.g. AliPay] and the super app WeChat that provide an advanced platform for the rapid introduction of further AI technologies," Selman said. U.S. role Last February, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order asking government agencies to do more with AI. "Continued American leadership in artificial intelligence is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States," Trump was quoted as saying in an official press release accompanying the order. Critics have said that Trump's order does not suggest enhanced government investment and plans for attracting fresh talent in AI research and development, which is essential for growth and industry competition. Gregory Allen is an adjunct senior fellow with the research group Center for a New American Security. He was recently quoted as saying that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is spending the most on research and development at $2 billion over five years. In contrast, the Chinese province of Shanghai, which is a city government, is planning to spend $15 billion on AI over 10 years. "So literally, we have the U.S. federal government at present at risk of being outspent by a provincial government of China," Allen said. China's AI capabilities have limits. They suffer from major weaknesses in areas like advanced semiconductors to support machine learning applications. "At the end of the day, when it comes to most major AI fields, China is not the technological leader and is not the source of most foundational innovations," Carter said.  The U.S. still dominates in the overall market for self-driving car technology, machine translation, natural language understanding, and web search. China has gained a strong presence in a few segments of these businesses, largely because of its vast domestic market. Despite the competition, collaboration and exchange of ideas occur between the two countries in the AI field, although this aspect is less discussed, Carter added. "Politically, the dynamic is more competitive; economically and scientifically, it is more collaborative," he said.

NASA Launches Chicago Planetarium’s Student Project into Space

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 23:41
College student Fatima Guerra, 19, will be the first to admit, she’s into some really nerdy stuff. “Like, up there nerdy.” "Way up there nerdy," she says. "All the way up into space." Guerra is an astronomer in training, involved since a high school internship with a small project at the Adler Planetarium, with big goals. “Our main goal was to see if the ozone layer is getting thinner and by how much, and if there is different parts of the Earth’s atmosphere getting thinner because of the pollution and greenhouse gases,” she told VOA from the laboratory at the Adler where she often works. ​Coding ThinSat Data that sheds light on those circumstances is gathered by a small electronic device called “ThinSat” designed to orbit the Earth. It is developed not by high-paid engineers and software programmers, but by Chicago-area students like Guerra. “We focused on coding the different parts of the sensors that the ThinSat is composed of. So, we coded so that it can measure light intensity, pressure.” “This stuff is very nerdy,” Jesus Garcia admits with a chuckle. “What we hope to accomplish is look at Earth from space as if it was the very first exoplanet that we have. So, imagine that we are looking at the very first images from a very distant planet.” As a systems engineer, Garcia oversees the work of the students developing ThinSat for the Adler’s Far Horizon’s Project, which he outlines “bring all types of students, volunteers and our staff to develop projects, engineering projects, that allow us to answer scientific questions.” Garcia says the students he works with on the project cross national, racial and cultural divides to work toward a common goal. “Here at the Adler, we have students who are minorities who have been faced with challenges of not having opportunities presented to them,” he said. “And here we are presenting a mission where they are collaborating with us scientists and engineers on our first mission that is going into space.” Rocket carries project into space As the NASA-owned, Northrop Grumann-developed Antares rocket successfully blasted off from the coast of Virginia on April 17, it wasn’t just making a resupply mission to the International Space Station. On board was ThinSat, the culmination of work by many at the Adler, including Guerra, who joined the Far Horizons team as a high school requirement that ended up becoming much more. “A requirement can become a life-changing opportunity, and you don’t even know it,” she told VOA. “It’s really exciting to see, or to know, especially, that my work is going to go up into space and help in the scientific world.” Daughter of immigrants It is also exciting for her parents, immigrants from Guatemala, who can boast that their daughter is one of the few who can claim to have built a satellite orbiting the Earth. “I told them it might become a worldwide type of news, and I’m going to be a part of it. And they were really proud. And they were calling my family over there and saying, ‘She might be on TV.’ And it’s something they really feel a part of me about,” Guerra said. Long after the data compiled by ThinSat is complete, Guerro will still have a place in history as a member of a team that put the first satellite developed by a private planetarium into space. She says her friends don’t think that’s nerdy at all. “It’s cool, because it’s interesting to see that something so nerdy is actually going to work, and is going to go up into something so important,” she said.

NASA Rocket Carries Adler Planetarium Student Project into Space

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 23:26
For some, the launch of a rocket into space to resupply the International Space Station is a routine mission. But for a group of students working with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, it is a historic moment marking the achievement of a lifetime. VOA's Kane Farabaugh has more from Chicago.

Food Stamps, Online Grocery Shopping Are About to Mix 

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 07:59
Amazon and Walmart on Thursday kicked off a two-year government pilot program allowing low-income shoppers on government food assistance in New York to shop and pay for their groceries online for the first time.    ShopRite will join the two retailers on the program early next week, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.    The USDA has long required customers using electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, to pay for their purchases at the actual time and place of sale. So the move marks the first time SNAP customers can pay for their groceries online. ShopRite and Amazon are providing the service to the New York City area, and Walmart is providing the service online in upstate New York locations. The agency said the pilot will eventually expand to other areas of New York as well as Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington. Purchase food, but not delivery The pilot program will test both online ordering and payment. SNAP participants will be able to use their benefits to purchase eligible food items but will not be able to use SNAP to pay for service or delivery charges, the agency said.    ``People who receive SNAP benefits should have the opportunity to shop for food the same way more and more Americans shop for food — by ordering and paying for groceries online,'' said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. ``As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance, too, so we can ensure the same shopping options are available for both non-SNAP and SNAP recipients.''    Perdue said he will be monitoring how the pilot program increases food access and customer service, specifically for those who have trouble visiting physical stores.   Roughly 38 million individuals receive food stamps in the U.S., according to the USDA. Nearly $52 billion, or 82% of all food stamp dollars, were spent at big box stores and grocery chains in 2017, according to the most recent USDA data.    The 2014 Farm Bill authorized the USDA to conduct and evaluate a pilot program for online purchasing prior to national implementation. The USDA says the move was intended to ensure online transactions are processed safely and securely.    Seattle-based Amazon said those who qualify don't need to be Prime members to buy groceries with their benefits. They'll get free access to its AmazonFresh service, which delivers meat, dairy and fresh produce to shoppers' doorsteps. And they'll also be able to use Prime Pantry, which delivers packaged goods like cereal and canned food. Qualifying amounts However, they'll need to spend over a certain amount to qualify for free shipping: $50 at AmazonFresh and $25 at Amazon.com. The online shopping giant launched a website, amazon.com/snap, where people can check if they qualify. Amazon said it's working with the USDA to expand service to other parts of New York state.    Amazon.com Inc. was on the initial list for the government pilot program, and Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart Inc. made the list later. The world's largest retailer, however, in late 2017 had started allowing customers in limited locations to order items through its online grocery pickup service and then pay for it in person at the stores.    ``Access to convenience and to quality, fresh groceries shouldn't be dictated by how you pay,'' Walmart said. ``This pilot program is a great step forward, and we are eager to expand this to customers in other states where we already have a great online grocery.''    Walmart said that nearly 300 locations with grocery pickup in the states will be part of the USDA government program. 

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