VOA Science & Tech
Updated: 50 min 47 sec ago
Self-driving technology is making online shopping a more convenient, more cost-effective experience. One new startup in San Jose, California, is launching a fully driverless delivery service, which many predict is something customers will be seeing a lot more of in the future. Faiza Elmasry takes a look at how these driverless cars are making people's lives easier, in this report narrated by Faith Lapidus.
Facebook Inc. said Thursday that it would no longer dispatch employees to the offices of political campaigns to offer support ahead of elections, as it did with U.S. President Donald Trump in the 2016 race. The company and other major online ad sellers, including Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Twitter Inc., have long offered free dedicated assistance to strengthen relationships with top advertisers such as presidential campaigns. Brad Parscale, who was Trump's online ads chief in 2016, last year called on-site "embeds" from Facebook crucial to the candidate's victory. Facebook has said that Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton was offered identical help, but she accepted a different level than Trump. Google and Twitter did not immediately respond to requests to comment on whether they also would pull back support. Facebook said it could offer assistance to more candidates globally by focusing on offering support through an online portal instead of in person. It said that political organizations still would be able to contact employees to receive basic training on using Facebook or for assistance on getting ads approved. Bloomberg first reported the new approach. Shaping communications Facebook, Twitter, and Google served as "quasi-digital consultants" to U.S. election campaigns in 2016, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Utah found in a paper published a year ago. The companies helped campaigns navigate their services' ad systems and "actively" shaped campaign communication by suggesting what types of messages to direct to whom, the researchers stated. Facebook's involvement with Trump's campaign drew scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers after the company found its user data had separately been misused by political data firm Cambridge Analytica, which consulted for the Trump campaign. In written testimony to U.S. lawmakers in June, Facebook said its employees had not spotted any misuse "in the course of their interactions with Cambridge Analytica" during the election.
The European Union's consumer protection chief said Thursday she's growing impatient with Facebook's efforts to improve transparency with users about their data, warning it could face sanctions for not complying. EU Consumer Commissioner Vera Jourova turned up the pressure on the social media giant, saying she wants the company to update its terms of service and expects to see its proposed changes by mid-October so they can take effect in December. "I will not hide that I am becoming rather impatient because we have been in dialogue with Facebook almost two years and I really want to see, not the progress — it's not enough for me — but I want to see the results,'' Jourova said. The EU wants Facebook to give users more information about how their data is used and how it works with third party makers of apps, games and quizzes. "If we do not see the progress the sanctions will have to come," she said. She didn't specify punishment, saying they would be applied by individual countries. "I was quite clear we cannot negotiate forever, we just want to see the result." The EU has been pressing the U.S. tech company to look at what changes it needs to make to better protect consumers and this year Facebook has had to adapt to new EU data protection rules. The concerns took on greater urgency after the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal erupted, in which data on 87 million Facebook users was allegedly improperly harvested. Jourova said she hopes Facebook will take more responsibility for its nearly 380 million European users. "We want Facebook to be absolutely clear to its users about how their service operates and makes money," she said. Facebook said it has already updated its terms of service in May to incorporate changes recommended at that point by EU authorities. The company said it "will continue our close cooperation to understand any further concerns and make appropriate updates." Jourova also said U.S.-based property rental site Airbnb has agreed to clarify its pricing system in response to complaints that it could mislead consumers. Airbnb has promised to be fully transparent by either including extra fees in the total price for a booking quoted on its website or notifying users that they might apply, she said. The company is complying with EU demands spurred by concerns that consumers could be confused by its complicated pricing structure, which could add unexpected costs such as cleaning charges at the end of a holiday. Airbnb is also changing its terms of service to make it clear that travelers can sue their host if they suffer personal harm or other damages. That's in response to complaints that its booking system can leave tourists stranded if the rental is canceled when all other arrangements have been already made. Airbnb said "guests have always been aware of all fees, including service charges and taxes, before booking listings," and will work with authorities to make it even clearer.
When Behnoush Babzani turned 35, she threw a party. She also used her birthday to ask friends to donate to a cause she cares about deeply: helping people who need bone marrow transplants. She herself received a bone marrow transplant from her brother. “It’s not that my body was making cancerous cells, it was that my body was making no cells,” she said. “So think about the boy in the bubble. I had to be isolated. I didn’t have an immune system to protect me.” Using a new feature on Facebook, Babzani in a few clicks posted a photo of herself in a hospital gown when she was receiving treatment and she asked her friends to help raise $350. WATCH: Facebook's Birthday Fundraiser Feature Brings Smiles to Charitable Causes New way to raise money for causes Facebook has always been a convenient way to send birthday wishes to friends. Now users have started taking advantage of a new feature introduced a year ago by the popular social networking site to turn birthday wishes into donations to help a favorite cause. It’s turned into a huge success for charities. In its first year, Facebook’s birthday fundraiser feature raised more than $300 million for charities around the world. With a new revenue source, some charities are rethinking some of their standard fundraising activities. The success of the Facebook birthday feature comes as social media users have begun to question how internet services connecting friends and family around the world have also become a mechanism for some to spread hate or influence foreign elections. Networks used to spread hate Along with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, testified in the U.S. Senate recently about steps the company has taken to identify and remove posts that violate the company’s terms of service. “We were too slow to spot this, and too slow to act. That is on us,” Sandberg told the Senate committee. Yet, the birthday fundraiser feature shows the power of using social media for good, says Facebook spokeswoman, Roya Winner. “It gives people who are celebrating a birthday, a chance to turn that day into something that’s bigger than themselves,” she said. Some of the biggest recipients have been St. Jude, the children’s hospital, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society, No Kid Hungry, which focuses on child hunger in the U.S., and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the days that followed, Behnoush surpassed her goal, raising more than $1,700. Her social network became an army pulling together to do good. Rescuing sea lions Two weeks before his 65th birthday, Stan Jensen, retired from working in sales at a Silicon Valley firm, received a message from Facebook asking if he wanted to mark the occasion of his birthday by dedicating the day to a cause. He did. He turned to 1,400 Facebook friends to help raise money for the Marine Mammal Center in Northern California, where he volunteers once a week helping injured sea lions. He raised $2,300. “It surpassed my wildest dreams,” he said, and he let his friends know they made a difference. “You’ve bought a ton of fish,” he told them. “You are feeding all the animals we have on site for several days.” His birthday is coming up again, and the sea lions are always hungry. He’s perfecting his pitch: “I know I’m special to you, but I’d like just the cost of a Starbucks coffee. Just $5. Please.”
Facebook has always been a convenient way to send birthday wishes to friends. But many users have started taking advantage of a new feature introduced a year ago by the popular social networking site to turn birthday wishes into donations to help a favorite cause. And it's turned into a huge success for charities. In its first year, Facebook's birthday fundraiser feature raised more than $300 million for charities around the world. Michelle Quinn has more.
EU regulators are quizzing merchants and others on U.S. online retailer Amazon's use of their data to discover whether there is a need for action, Europe's antitrust chief said on Wednesday. The comments by European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager came as the world's largest online retailer faces calls for more regulatory intervention and even its potential break-up because of its sheer size. Vestager said the issue was about a company hosting merchants on its site and at the same time competing with these same retailers by using their data for its own sales. "We are gathering information on the issue and we have sent quite a number of questionnaires to market participants in order to understand this issue in full," Vestager told a news conference. "These are very early days and we haven't formally opened a case. We are trying to make sure that we get the full picture." Seattle-based Amazon had no immediate comment. Vestager has the power to fine companies up to 10 percent of their global turnover for breaching EU antitrust rules.
In Kenya, a new taxi hailing app developed by local taxi drivers is in its fourth month of operation in Nairobi. Dubbed BebaBeba by the Drivers and Partners Association of Kenya (DPAK), it was created to compete with Uber and other ride hailing apps. Rael Ombuor reports from Nairobi.
How to communicate with someone who speaks a different language? It's an age-old problem. But now with an explosion of translation apps and devices, Michelle Quinn reports that overcoming language barriers is becoming easier.
German luxury car brand Audi this week staged the global launch of a new electric sport utility vehicle on the home turf of rival Tesla, and highlighted a deal with Amazon.com Inc. to make recharging its forthcoming e-tron models easier. The Audi e-tron midsize SUV will be offered in the United States next year at a starting price of $75,795 before a $7,500 tax credit. It is one of a volley of electric vehicles coming from Volkswagen AG brands, as well as other European premium brands including Daimler-owned Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volvo Cars and Jaguar Land Rover. All aim to expand the market for premium electric vehicles and also to grab a share of that market from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla, which has had the niche largely to itself. "I want Audi to be the No. 1 electric vehicle seller in America over the long term," Audi of America President Scott Keogh told Reuters in an interview on Monday. Audi dealers, particularly those from California, where Tesla has made significant inroads, cheered the e-tron at Monday night's crowded event. Analysts on Tuesday expressed concern that the vehicle's driving range may not measure up to that of the Tesla Model X. Audi officials said they do not have official range estimates for the e-tron SUV under U.S. testing procedures. They said the vehicle should achieve a range under less rigorous European testing standards of roughly 250 miles or 400 kilometers. Keogh told attendees at Monday's event that an e-tron had made a 175-mile journey over the mountains east of San Francisco with range to spare. He also emphasized that the e-tron is designed to recharge more rapidly than rival electric vehicles. UBS analyst Patrick Hummel said in a note on Tuesday that the e-tron "fails to set new benchmarks in the premium EV segment, even though we consider it better than the Mercedes EQC." The EQC is a rival electric SUV the Daimler AG brand plans to launch in 2020. The e-tron's 95 kWh battery has less capacity than the 100 kWh battery used in the Tesla Model X 100D model, but more than the base Model X 75D. The Model X 100D is rated at 295 miles (475 km) of range by the U.S. government. Recharging Audi and Volkswagen are using the U.S. launch of the e-tron SUV in mid-2019 to take aim at one obstacle to expanding electric vehicle sales: the lack of convenient ways to recharge their batteries. Audi will partner with online retailer Amazon to sell and install home electric vehicle charging systems to buyers of the e-tron, the companies said on Monday. Amazon will deliver the hardware and hire electricians to install them through its Amazon Home Services operation. Amazon's partnership with Audi marks the first time the online retailer has struck such a deal with an automaker, and signals a new front in Amazon's drive to expand its reach into consumers' homes beyond the presence of its Alexa smart speakers in living rooms and kitchens. "We see charging installation as a very important business," Pat Bigatel, director of Amazon Home Services, told Reuters at Audi's launch event in San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Center. Audi executives said home charging stations would cost about $1,000, depending on the home's electrical system. Tesla offers wall connectors for home charging at a $500 list price, and will arrange for installation, according to the company. At the same time, Electrify America, a company funded by Volkswagen as part of its settlement of U.S. diesel emission cheating litigation, plans to launch next year the next round of installations of public charging stations, Electrify America executives told Reuters. Tesla has developed its own network of Supercharger charging stations with more than 11,000 chargers in North America. Electrify America plans to have 2,000 chargers installed by mid-June next year. Those will be open to any vehicle, and customers can swipe a credit card to recharge. "We want to work with all" automotive brands, said Giovanni Palazzo, Electrify America's chief executive. Lifting the curtain Audi has been heralding the launch of the e-tron SUV for some time, but until Monday it had not shared many details of the vehicle. The e-tron is electric, and has two electric motors — one in the front and one in the rear — driving all four wheels. The Hungarian factory building motors for the e-tron will start with a production pace equivalent to 200 vehicles a day, Audi officials said. In Europe, the vehicle will use cameras instead of conventional mirrors to give drivers a view to the rear. That feature is still not approved by U.S. regulators. However, in many other respects the e-tron is a conventional, mainstream luxury SUV. It offers seating for five, and its length and wheelbase position it in the center of the market for midsize, five-passenger luxury SUVs such as the BMW X5. The e-tron is 5 inches (13 cm) shorter than the Tesla Model X, and it has conventional doors. The Model X uses vertically opening "falcon wing" doors. The e-tron will have an advanced cruise-control system that can keep the car within a lane and maintain a set distance behind another vehicle, but the system will be designed so that drivers must keep hands on the wheel.
A volunteer medic and the man whose life he saved. A lawmaker whose Facebook post calling for protests in Kyiv's Maidan square helped bring down a president. These are some of the characters featured in a virtual reality reconstruction of the bloodiest day in the 2013-14 street demonstrations in Ukraine, when dozens of protesters were killed in the final moments of Viktor Yanukovich's rule. Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the protests, a group of 14 journalists, designers and information technology engineers developed a program that lets a user to walk through the area around Maidan square. Videos of people who were there on Feb. 20 — the bloodiest day of violence — pop up to relate their experiences and explain the significance of particular spots. A transparent blue wall marks where Yanukovich's forces lined up to repel the protesters. For Alexey Furman, co-founder of New Cave Media, who covered the protests as a photojournalist, the experience of re-creating the event was cathartic. "It was a very traumatic morning [for me], as it was for hundreds of other people," he said. "I saw people getting killed." "I think the project actually helped fight the PTSD that I had because I'd been on Maidan dozens of times in 2013 and 2014," he said in an interview, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. Painful memories He used to avoid Instytutska Street, which runs on a hill down to Maidan and was the scene of much of the bloodshed, because of the painful memories. "But now to be honest, I come to Instytutska and go like, 'Oh, we still don't have that 3-D-model. We have to work on it.' " The team said it took around 200,000 images to build the virtual reality model, a project funded in part with a $20,000 grant from Google Labs. More than 100 people were killed during the protests, and they came to be known locally as the 'Heavenly Hundred." A small strip of Instytutska was subsequently renamed after them. From exile in Russia, Yanukovich has denied Ukrainians' widespread belief that he ordered his special forces to open fire. At the end of the experience, the user meets two people whom fate threw together on Feb. 20 — a wounded protester and a medical volunteer who held his hand over the wound "for a good 20 minutes maybe even more," New Cave Media co-founder Sergiy Polezhaka said in an interview. "Hiding in a tiny place under the tree ... waiting for danger to calm down a little bit, to save this protester's life — this is the iconic image from that morning for me," Polezhaka said. The user will also meet the journalist-turned-lawmaker Mustafa Nayyem, whose Facebook post in November 2013, calling for demonstrations against Yanukovich's decision to pull out of a deal with the European Union, triggered the Maidan revolt. The protests in turn lit the fuse Russia's seizing and annexing of Crimea in March 2014 and the outbreak of Russian-backed separatist fighting in the Donbass region that has killed more than 10,000 despite a notional cease-fire.
Electric drones booked through smartphones pick people up from office rooftops, shortening travel time by hours, reducing the need for parking and clearing smog from the air. This vision of the future is driving the Japanese government’s “flying car” project. Major carrier All Nippon Airways, electronics company NEC Corp. and more than a dozen other companies and academic experts hope to have a road map ready by the year’s end. “This is such a totally new sector Japan has a good chance for not falling behind,” said Fumiaki Ebihara, the government official in charge of the project. Nobody believes people are going to be zipping around in flying cars any time soon. Many hurdles remain, such as battery life, the need for regulations and, of course, safety concerns. But dozens of similar projects are popping up around the world. The prototypes so far are less like traditional cars and more like drones big enough to hold people. A flying car is defined as an aircraft that’s electric, or hybrid electric, with driverless capabilities, that can land and takeoff vertically. They are often called EVtol, which stands for “electric vertical takeoff and landing” aircraft. The flying car concepts promise to be better than helicopters, which are expensive to maintain, noisy to fly and require trained pilots, Ebihara and other proponents say. “You may think of ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘Gundam,’ or ’Doraemon,’” Ebihara said, referring to vehicles of flight in a Hollywood film and in Japanese cartoons featuring robots. “Up to now, it was just a dream, but with innovations in motors and batteries, it’s time for it to become real.” Google, drone company Ehang and car manufacturer Geely in China, and Volkswagen AG of Germany have invested in flying car technology. Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. said they had nothing to say about flying cars, but Toyota Motor Corp. recently invested $500 million in working with Uber on self-driving technology for the ride-hailing service. Toyota group companies have also invested 42.5 million yen ($375,000) in a Japanese startup, Cartivator, that is working on a flying car. The hope is to fly up and light the torch at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but it’s unclear it will meet that goal: At a demonstration last year, the device crashed after it rose to slightly higher than eye level. A video of a more recent demonstration suggests it’s now flying more stably, though it’s being tested indoors, unmanned and chained so it won’t fly away. There are plenty of skeptics. Elon Musk, chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc., says even toy drones are noisy and blow a lot of air, which means anything that would be “1,000 times heavier” isn’t practical. “If you want a flying car, just put wheels on a helicopter,” he said in a recent interview with podcast host and comedian Joe Rogan on YouTube. “Your neighbors are not going to be happy if you land a flying car in your backyard or on your rooftop.” Though the Japanese government has resisted Uber’s efforts to offer ride-hailing services in Japan, limiting it to partnerships with taxi companies, it has eagerly embraced the U.S. company’s work on EVtol machines. Uber says it is considering Tokyo as its first launch city for affordable flights via its UberAir service. It says Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas, and locations in Australia, Brazil, France and India are other possible locations. Unlike regular airplanes, with their aerodynamic design and two wings, Uber’s “Elevate” structures look like small jets with several propellers on top. The company says it plans flight demonstrations as soon as 2020 and a commercial service by 2023. Uber’s vision calls for using heliports on rooftops, but new multi-floored construction similar to parking lots for cars will likely be needed to accommodate EVtol aircraft if the service takes off. Unmanned drones are legal in Japan, the U.S. and other countries, but there are restrictions on where they can be flown and requirements for getting approval in advance. In Japan, drone flyers can be licensed if they take classes. There is no requirement like drivers licenses for cars. Flying passengers over populated areas would take a quantum leap in technology, overhauling aviation regulations and air traffic safety controls, along with major efforts both to ensure safety and convince people it’s safe. Uber said at a recent presentation in Tokyo that it envisions a route between the city’s two international airports, among others. “This is not a rich person’s toy. This is a mass market solution,” said Adam Warmoth, product manager at Uber Elevate. Concepts for flying cars vary greatly. Some resemble vehicles with several propellers on top while others look more like a boat with a seat over the propellers. Ebihara, the flying-car chief at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, says Japan is on board for “Blade Runner” style travel — despite its plentiful, efficient and well developed public transportation. Japan’s auto and electronics industries have the technology and ability to produce super-light materials that could give the nation an edge in the flying car business, he said. Just as the automobile vanquished horse-drawn carriages, moving short-distance transport into the air could in theory bring a sea change in how people live, Ebihara said, pointing to the sky outside the ministry building to stress how empty it was compared to the streets below. Flying also has the allure of a bird’s eye view, the stuff of drone videos increasingly used in filmmaking, tourism promotion and journalism. Atsushi Taguchi, a “drone grapher,” as specialists in drone video are called, expects test flights can be carried out even if flying cars won’t become a reality for years since the basic technology for stable flying already exists with recent advances in sensors, robotics and digital cameras. A growing labor shortage in deliveries in Japan is adding to the pressures to realize such technology, though there are risks, said Taguchi, who teaches at the Tokyo film school Digital Hollywood. The propellers on commercially sold drones today are dangerous, and some of his students have lost fingers with improper flying. The bigger propellers needed for vertical flight would increase the hazards and might need to be covered. The devices might need parachutes to soften crash landings, or might have to explode into small bits to ensure pieces hitting the ground would be smaller. “I think one of the biggest hurdles is safety,” said Taguchi. “And anything that flies will by definition crash.”
The U.S. Air Force will next month introduce a new, more advanced aerial fuel tanker, the KC-46 Pegasus, that may some day be able to defend itself with a laser. Tankers re-fuel U.S. fighters and bombers in flight, allowing them to stay aloft longer and fly much farther. That important role makes tankers a key target for adversaries. Air Force General Carlton Everhart, who oversaw the plane’s acquisition process, says the Air Force is working to add the unconventional feature, allowing the tanker to fly closer to the fight than ever before. Everhart told VOA in a recent interview that Air Mobility Command, in coordination with Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operations, will be testing lasers on airplanes “in about two years.” "Those things are coming on right now. I'm pretty excited about it," said Everhart, who recently stepped down as head of Air Mobility Command. The long-awaited tanker will carry up to 96,000 kilograms of highly flammable aviation fuel so it can refuel planes and helicopters in flight through a telescoping boom at its rear or through equipment on its wings. While the new tanker comes equipped with technology to make it less detectable to enemies, less detectable isn't the same as undetectable, and that’s a problem for both the tanker and the bomber and fighter jets it refuels. Todd Harrison, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that because tankers are "so vulnerable," the Air Force must keep them “far outside the threat ring of an adversary." "That means that our planes cannot go as far into enemy territory before they have to turn around to come back and hit the tanker again," Harrison said. Everhart said the idea of defending the KC-46 tanker with lasers is possible because the plane's engines can generate a massive amount of power. He said the extra defense would make the tanker better “able to support the fighter and bomber aircraft” during combat operations. If battle scenes from the movie Star Wars come to mind, with lasers shooting adversaries into oblivion, General Everhart says that's not the idea. He calls it a "purely defensive weapon." The laser could be used to blind the sensors on another aircraft, or an incoming missile, said Harrison of CSIS. "Or if it's a high enough power laser, it could actually be used to burn a hole to weaken the skin of an incoming missile or aircraft," he added. One major advantage of defensive lasers is that they don't run out of ammunition, an important feature on an airplane with limited space. As long as they have electrical power, they can keep firing. Once testing begins, it likely will take years before defensive lasers are fully operational. Everhart hopes the technology will be finalized on the KC-46 Pegasus during the 2020s.
SpaceX, Elon Musk's space transportation company, on Monday named its first private passenger as Japanese businessman Yusaku Maezawa, the founder and chief executive of online fashion retailer Zozo. A former drummer in a punk band, billionaire Maezawa will take a trip around the moon planned for 2023 aboard its forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket spaceship, taking the race to commercialize space travel to new heights. The first person to travel to the moon since the United States' Apollo missions ended in 1972, Maezawa's identity was revealed at an event on Monday evening at the company's headquarters and rocket factory in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne. Maezawa, who is most famous outside Japan for his record-breaking $110 million purchase of an untitled 1982 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, said he would invite six to eight artists to join him on the lunar orbit mission. The billionaire chief executive of electric car maker Tesla, Musk revealed more details of the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, the super heavy-lift launch vehicle that he promises will shuttle passengers to the moon and eventually fly humans and cargo to Mars. The BFR could be conducting its first orbital flights in about two to three years, he said. Musk had previously said he wanted the rocket to be ready for an unpiloted trip to Mars in 2022, with a crewed flight in 2024, though his ambitious production targets have been known to slip. "Its not 100 percent certain we can bring this to flight," Musk said of the lunar mission. The amount Maezawa is paying for the trip was not disclosed, however, Musk said the businessman outlaid a significant deposit and will have a material impact on the cost of developing the BFR. The 42-year-old Maezawa is one of Japan's most colorful executives and is a regular fixture in the country's gossipy weeklies with his collection of foreign and Japanese art, fast cars and celebrity girlfriend. Maezawa made his fortune by founding the wildly popular shopping site Zozotown. His company Zozo, officially called Start Today Co Ltd, also offers a made-to-measure service using a polka dot bodysuit, the Zozosuit. With SpaceX, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic battling it out to launch private-sector spacecraft, Maezawa will join a growing list of celebrities and the ultra-rich who have secured seats on flights offered on the under-development vessels. Those who have signed up to fly on Virgin Galactic sub-orbital missions include actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber. A 90-minute flight costs $250,000. Short sightseeing trips to space aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket are likely to cost around $200,000 to $300,000, at least to start, Reuters reported in July. SpaceX has already upended the space industry with its relatively low-cost reusable Falcon 9 rockets. The company has completed more than 50 successful Falcon launches and snagged billions of dollars' worth of contracts, including deals with NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense. SpaceX in February transfixed a global audience with the successful test launch of its Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket in the world.
Lasers might soon be the newest line of defense for vulnerable aircraft that are key to keeping other military planes in battle. Air tankers are getting an upgrade next month with the introduction of the new Boeing KC-46 Pegasus, carrying up to about 96,000 kilograms of highly flammable aviation fuel. The long-awaited plane will be able to refuel other aircraft off its wings and to receive fuel from another tanker while its refueling a plane. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb has more.
There's a push to keep a remote Icelandic nature reserve free from any internet or phone signals to preserve the area's tranquility. But not everyone is on board with the proposed digital free zone. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo reports.
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, was sued for defamation on Monday for falsely suggesting that a British caver who helped save 12 boys and their soccer coach from a Thailand cave in July was a pedophile and child rapist. Vernon Unsworth sued over Musk's reference to him in a July 15 tweet as a "pedo guy," a comment for which Musk later apologized. The suit also claims that Musk called Unsworth a child rapist and sex trafficker in an Aug. 30 email to BuzzFeed News. Tesla did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Musk and the company. The complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeks at least $75,000 of compensatory damages, plus unspecified punitive damages. The case adds to a slew of litigation against Musk, including over his running of Palo Alto, California-based Tesla, which the billionaire has said has caused him severe stress. Unsworth became a target for Musk after cave rescuers rejected Musk's offer of a mini-submarine created by his rocket company SpaceX to rescue the soccer team, which was finally freed after 18 days in the cave on July 10. Though Unsworth told CNN three days later Musk's offer was a "PR stunt" that had no chance of working and that Musk could "stick his submarine where it hurts," he said that did not justify Musk's use of Twitter and the media to defame him. The July 15 tweet by Musk touted the mini-submarine and then, referring to Unsworth with a shorthand description of pedophile, said, "Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it." Musk apologized on July 18, referring to Unsworth in saying "his actions against me do not justify my actions against him," and that "the fault is mine and mine alone." But the complaint said that in the August 30 email, Musk urged a BuzzFeed reporter to "stop defending child rapists," and then said Unsworth spent decades in Thailand until moving to Chiang Rai, "renowned for child sex-trafficking," to take a 12-year-old bride. Unsworth said all of these accusations were false, and that the defamatory statements "were manufactured out of whole cloth by Musk out of a belief on his part that his wealth and stature allowed him to falsely accuse Mr. Unsworth with impunity" because he disagreed with him about the mini-submarine. The case is Unsworth v Musk, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 18-08048.
Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund invested $1 billion Monday in an American electric car manufacturer just weeks after Tesla CEO Elon Musk earlier claimed the kingdom would help his own firm go private. Tesla stock dropped Monday on reaction to the news, the same day that the Saudi fund announced it had taken its first loan, an $11 billion borrowing from global banks as it tries to expand its investments. The Saudi Public Investment Fund said it would invest the $1 billion in Newark, California-based Lucid Motors. The investment "will provide the necessary funding to commercially launch Lucid's first electric vehicle, the Lucid Air, in 2020," the sovereign wealth fund said in a statement. "The company plans to use the funding to complete engineering development and testing of the Lucid Air, construct its factory in Arizona, enter production for the Lucid Air to begin the global rollout of the company's retail strategy starting in North America." Lucid issued a statement quoting Peter Rawlinson, its chief technology officer, welcoming the investment. "At Lucid, we will demonstrate the full potential of the electric-connected vehicle in order to push the industry forward," he said. The decision comes after Musk on Aug. 7 tweeted that he had "funding secured" to take Tesla private. Investors pushed Tesla's shares up 11 percent in a day, boosting its valuation by $6 billion. There are multiple reports that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the disclosure, including asking board members what they knew about Musk's plans. Experts say regulators likely are investigating if Musk was truthful in the tweet about having the financing set for the deal. Musk later said the Saudi Public Investment Fund would be investing in the firm, something Saudi officials never comment on. Meanwhile Monday, the sovereign wealth fund known by the acronym PIF said it had taken its first loan, an $11 billion borrowing. It did not say how it would use the money, only describing it as going toward "general corporate purposes." The Las Vegas-based Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute estimates the Saudi fund has holdings of $250 billion. Those include a $3.5 billion stake in the ride-sharing app Uber. Saudi Arabia's 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has talked about using the PIF to help diversify the economy of the kingdom, which relies almost entirely on money made from its oil sales.
An increasing number of robots are being created and designed to work side by side with humans, in a human environment. That means robots have to be structured like a person, because some of them have to walk and sit like a person. Some robots are even being designed to look human. But seeing an android, a robot that looks human, can make some people uneasy. That growing unsettling feeling or phenomenon as robots begin to look more like human beings is called the "uncanny valley." Even researchers who work on robots are not immune to it. “I know how they work. I know they’re just machines, but something about something that looks like a person but doesn’t quite move like a person is disturbing,” said Jonathan Gratch, director for virtual human research at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies. Gratch, who is a research professor of computer science and psychology, studies human-computer interaction. He said there are many thoughts behind why the uncanny valley exists. One explanation is that it’s biological. People are hardwired to recognize when something seems wrong. “In my research, I study emotion and how we use emotional cues to read each other’s minds, and I think a lot of the issue for me is if you try to make something very realistic, then you start trying to read all this information into what it’s portraying, and it is not the right information. So, it just communicates something is off. Something is wrong with this interaction,” Gratch said. Another theory is that a robot that looks too human threatens what it means to be human. “Initially, humans were seen as the only intelligent entity. And now, we know more and more that animals can do many of the things that we do, build tools. We know machines are starting to become intelligent. We hold on to the fact that we’re emotional, but now these machines are starting to be emotional as well, which is perhaps a threat. So, where does that lead people?” Gratch explained. A person’s religious beliefs and culture may also play into how an android is perceived, he suggested. “In the Western tradition, coming from Christianity, humans are unique, perhaps uniquely possessing a soul. Whereas in Japanese Shinto culture, souls live everywhere, in rocks and machines,” Gratch said. John Rebula is a postdoctoral fellow at USC and is working on making a humanoid robot walk like a person by being more coordinated and balanced. Applications include the ability to walk up a flight of stairs and sit in a chair made for a person. He said the robot’s face is not necessary and is clearly cosmetic. “We really do think of these as research machines that we’re ripping apart and putting back together, ripping apart and putting back together. And so, it’s very easy for us to leave off the cosmetic bits," Rebula said. His robot does have cartoon-like eyes, ears and a nose. It could be considered cute. However, if it looked more human, Rebula said he would not necessarily want to be in the lab with it all the time. “We have lots of late nights in labs. You start yelling at the robot a little bit as it is — 'Oh, why aren’t you working?' I don’t necessarily, myself, need that extra layer of weird,” Rebula said. People who design machines to work with humans do keep the uncanny valley in mind as they think about the look of a robot, and how widely it will be accepted by humans.
Researchers are working to create robots that can do all types of jobs and now some scientists are trying to make androids - or robots that appear human. But androids can make some people feel uneasy. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee explains this feeling or phenomenon known as the "uncanny valley."
Facebook is better prepared to defend against efforts to manipulate the platform to influence elections and has recently thwarted foreign influence campaigns targeting several countries, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday. Zuckerberg, posting on his Facebook page, outlined a series of steps the leading social network has taken to protect against misinformation and manipulation campaigns aimed at disrupting elections. "We've identified and removed fake accounts ahead of elections in France, Germany, Alabama, Mexico and Brazil," Zuckerberg said. "We've found and taken down foreign influence campaigns from Russia and Iran attempting to interfere in the US, UK, Middle East, and elsewhere — as well as groups in Mexico and Brazil that have been active in their own country." Zuckerberg repeated his admission that Facebook was ill-prepared for the vast influence efforts on social media in the 2016 US election but added that "today, Facebook is better prepared for these kinds of attacks." But he also warned that the task is difficult because "we face sophisticated, well-funded adversaries. They won't give up, and they will keep evolving." The Facebook co-founder said the social network remains in a constant battle with those who create fake accounts that could be used to spread false information — having blocked more than a billion. "With advances in machine learning, we have now built systems that block millions of fake accounts every day," he said. "In total, we removed more than one billion fake accounts — the vast majority within minutes of being created and before they could do any harm — in the six months between October and March." Zuckerberg's post was the latest in a series of steps aimed at repairing the damage from its missteps in 2016, including the hijacking of personal data on millions of Facebook users by a political consultancy working for Donald Trump. Separately, Facebook announced it was expanding fact-checking for photos and videos to 27 partners in 17 countries around the world, up from 14 countries earlier this year. "Similar to our work for articles, we have built a machine learning model that uses various engagement signals, including feedback from people on Facebook, to identify potentially false content," said produce manager Antonia Woodford. "We then send those photos and videos to fact-checkers for their review, or fact-checkers can surface content on their own."