VOA Science & Tech
Updated: 1 hour 29 min ago
The International Telecommunication Union reports that for the first time in history, half of the global population is using the internet. A new report finds by the end of the year, 3.9 billion people worldwide will be online. The report finds access to and use of information and communication technologies around the world is trending upwards. It notes most internet users are in developed countries, with more than 80 percent of their populations online. But it says internet use is steadily growing in developing countries, increasing from 7.7 percent in 2005 to 45.3 percent this year. The International Telecommunication Union says Africa is the region with the strongest growth, where the percentage of people using the internet has increased from just over two percent in 2005 to nearly 25 percent in 2018. The lowest growth rates, it says, are in Europe and the Americas, with the lowest usage found in the Asia-Pacific region. In addition to data on internet usage, newly released statistics show mobile access to basic telecommunication services is becoming more predominant. ITU Senior Statistician, Esperanza Magpantay says access to higher speed mobile and fixed broadband also is growing. “So, there is almost 96 percent of the population who are now covered by mobile population signal of which 90 percent are covered by 3G access. So, this is a high figure, and this helps explain why we have this 51 percent of the population now using the internet,” she said. With the growth in mobile broadband, Magpantay says there has been an upsurge in the number of people using the internet through their mobile devices. The ITU says countries that are hooked into the digital economy do better in their overall economic well-being and competitiveness. Unfortunately, it says the cost of accessing telecommunication networks remains too high and unaffordable for many. It says prices must be brought down to make the digital economy a reality for the half the world’s people who do not, as yet, use the internet.
The role drones play in our lives today is becoming greater and greater, as are the capabilities of these autonomous flying robots. Genia Dulot visited CalTech, the California Institute of Technology, where the potential for drones is being explored for surprising new uses.
Security agencies will gain greater access to encrypted messages under new laws in Australia. The legislation will force technology companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google to disable encryption protections to allow investigators to track the communications of terrorists and other criminals. It is, however, a controversial measure. Australian law enforcement officials say the growth of end-to-end encryption in applications such as Signal, Facebook’s WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage hamper their efforts to track the activities of criminals and extremists. End-to-end encryption is a code that allows a message to stay secret between the person who wrote it and the recipient. PM: Law urgently needed But a new law passed Thursday in Australia compels technology companies, device manufacturers and service providers to build in features needed for police to crack those hitherto secret codes. However, businesses will not have to introduce these features if they are considered “systemic weaknesses,” which means they are likely to result in compromised security for other users. The Australian legislation is the first of its kind anywhere. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new law was urgently needed because encoded messaging apps allowed “terrorists and organized criminals and … pedophile rings to do their evil work.” Critics: Law goes too far However, critics, including technology companies, human rights groups, and lawyers, believe the measure goes too far and gives investigators “unprecedented powers to access encrypted communications.” Francis Galbally, the chairman of the encryption provider Senetas, says the law will send Australia’s tech sector into reverse. “We will lose some of the greatest mathematicians and scientists this country has produced, and I can tell you because I employ a lot of them, they are fabulous, they are well regarded, but the world will now regard them if they stay in this country as subject to the government making changes to what they are doing in order to spy on everybody,” he said. Galbally also claims that his company could lose clients to competitors overseas because it cannot guarantee its products have not been compromised by Australian authorities. Tech giant Apple said in October that “it would be wrong to weaken security for millions of law-abiding customers in order to investigate the very few who pose a threat.” The new law includes penalties for noncompliance.
The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee warns the United States is being outgunned in cyberspace, already having lost its competitive advantage to Russia while China is rapidly closing in. "When it comes to cyber, misinformation and disinformation, Russia is already our peer and in the areas of misinformation or disinformation, I believe is ahead of us," Senator Mark Warner told an audience Friday in Washington. "This is an effective methodology for Russia and it's also remarkably cheap," he added, calling for a realignment of U.S. defense spending. Warner, calling Russia's election meddling both an intelligence failure and a "failure of imagination," strongly criticized the White House, key departments and fellow lawmakers for being too complacent in their responses. As for China, Warner called Beijing's cyber and censorship infrastructure "the envy of authoritarian regimes around the world" and warned when it comes to artificial intelligence, quantum computing and 5G mobile phone networks, China is "starting to outpace us on these investments by orders of magnitude." In contrast, the Democratic senator laid out a more aggressive approach in cyberspace, with the United States leading allies in an effort to establish clear rules and norms for behavior in cyberspace. He also said it was imperative the U.S. articulate when and where it would respond to cyberattacks. "Our adversaries continue to believe that there won't be consequences for their actions," Warner said. "For Russia and China, it's pretty much been open season." Warner also delivered a stern message to social media companies. "Major platform companies — like Twitter and Facebook, but also Reddit, YouTube and Tumblr — aren't doing nearly enough to prevent their platforms from becoming petri dishes for Russian disinformation and propaganda," he said. "If they don't work with us, Congress will have to work on its own." The Trump administration unveiled a new National Cyber Strategy in September, calling for a more aggressive response to the growing online threat posed by other countries, terrorist groups and criminal organizations. "We're not just on defense," National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters at the time. "We're going to do a lot of things offensively, and I think our adversaries need to know that." Top U.S. military officials have also said their cyber teams are engaging against other countries, terrorist groups and even criminal organizations on a daily basis. Warner on Friday praised elements of the new strategy, particularly measures that have allowed the military to respond to attacks more quickly. But, he said, on the whole it is not enough, pointing to Trump's willingness to "kowtow" to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Helsinki Summit over Moscow's election interference efforts. "No one in the Trump administration in the intel [intelligence] or defense world doesn't acknowledge what happened in 2016," he said. "But the fact that the head of our government still [finds] it's hard to get those words out of his mouth, is a real problem."
Joseph Wheeler and his team of students and faculty from Virginia Tech University are convinced they are building the house of the future. Judges at the recent Solar Decathlon Middle East agreed, awarding their future house first place in the December competition held in Dubai. “We set it up in two days,” Wheeler told VOA. “All the other teams took the full two weeks of construction. Ours was set up in two days, generating power on the third day by the sun.” The quick assembly time is just one thing that makes this home special. All of, literally all of it, comes in modules that are put together on-site into a fully functioning plug-and-play house. Quick to assemble “Our typical cartridge is 3-feet wide and about 12-feet long and no higher than 10-feet tall,” Wheeler said. “That cartridge contains the structure of the house. It’s got the structural walls, the insulation in it. But it’s got all the plumbing and the electrical system pre-installed — even the cabinetry, even the finishes. It is an incredibly high-tech home. In this case, well over a $1 million home but highly sophisticated.” The home is fully wired, a test bed for everything digital. The home is also energy positive, which means — thanks to solar cells — it produces more energy than it consumes. This while being fully functional in the Dubai desert. “You had to maintain a certain temperature range in the home. You had to keep all your appliances working and run them nonstop for an entire two weeks,” Wheeler said. “You had to charge an electric car from the excess power you generated in the house. You had to do laundry. You had to do dishes. I mean, you had to do all these things.” They did it, and won. What’s next? Far from being a one-of-a-kind home, Wheeler and his team say they fully expect this kind of home construction to quickly become the way homes are built in the future. “We already have our phones, our cars, all of these pieces of technology that we bring with us that come with the expectation that they are smart,” Bobby Vance, a professor of architecture on the Virginia Tech team, told VOA. “But we go home and we kind of shut that all away.” The team says this home is proof that [shutting it away] doesn’t need to be the case anymore. “We envision one day in the very near future, you’re going to be able to go onto Amazon, and you’re going to be able to pick out your features — your appliances, the finishes you want in your kitchen and in your bathroom and in your bedroom, and you’ll place those in your shopping cart,” Wheeler said. Wheeler and Vance said they are in talks with a number of homebuilding companies and are about to begin building a home that will be for sale sometime in the spring. They are also hoping to ramp up their production on a much larger scale to make their dream home a reality in the near future.
Many experts predict that the emerging 5G wireless technology will revolutionize the world's economy. They say it holds the key to a smarter, more efficient, more connected and much wealthier world. But a recent congressional report outlines how China plans to use the transition to 5G and its access to billions of networked electronic devices for intelligence-gathering, sabotage and business deals. As VOA's Jela de Franceschi reports, China's aim is to put an end to US high-tech pre-eminence.
It's official: A team of faculty and students from Virginia Tech University has built what's being billed as the world's best solar home. The decision was made last weekend in Dubai when officials announced the winner of the Solar Decathlon Middle East competition. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.
For experts in the field of ocean mapping, it is no small irony that we know more about the surfaces of the moon and Mars than we do about our planet’s sea floor. “Can you imagine operating on the land without a map, or doing anything without a map?” asked Larry Mayer, director of the U.S.-based Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, a research body that trains hydrographers and develops tools for mapping. “We depend on having that knowledge of what’s around us, and the same is true for the ocean,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. With their deep craters and mountain ranges, the contours of the earth beneath the waves are both vast and largely unknown. Seabed 2030 But a huge mapping effort is underway to change that. The U.N.-backed project, called Seabed 2030, is urging countries and companies to pool data to create a map of the entire ocean floor by 2030. The map will be freely available to all. “We obviously need a lot of cooperation from different parties, individuals as well as private companies,” said Mao Hasebe, project coordinator at the Nippon Foundation, a Japanese philanthropic organization supporting the initiative. “We think it’s ambitious, but we don’t think it’s impossible,” Hasebe said. The project, which launched in 2017, is expected to cost about $3 billion. It is a collaboration between the Nippon Foundation and GEBCO, a nonprofit association of experts that is already involved in charting the ocean floor. The result would be greater knowledge of the oceans’ biodiversity, improved understanding of the climate, advanced warning of impending disasters, and the ability to better protect or exploit deep-sea resources, Hasebe said. Recent advances So far, the biggest data contributors to Seabed 2030 have been companies, in particular Dutch energy prospector Fugro and deep-sea mapping firm Ocean Infinity. Both were involved in the search for the Malaysian airliner MH370, which disappeared in 2014. To map the ocean floor, high-tech multibeam echosounders transmit a fan of acoustic beams from a ship, which ping back depending on the depth and topography of the ocean floor. That creates data points, which can be converted into a map. “With advanced sonar technology, it really is like seeing. I think we’ve come out of the era of being the blind man with the stick,” said Robert Larter, a marine geophysicist at the British Antarctic Survey. “We can survey much more efficiently, and, not only that, but in much greater detail,” he said, adding that the work was painstaking. “The ocean’s a big place!” he said. The advent of new technology, such as underwater drones and robots, is also speeding up the mapping process. A global competition hosted by energy giant Shell, the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, is also under way, offering $7 million to teams that can develop technologies to conduct ocean exploration autonomously, rapidly and to a high resolution. A team from Seabed 2030 has reached the final stages of the competition with an idea based on remotely operated robots working in extreme depths to map territory independently. Economic benefits Exploring Earth’s final frontier will do more than satisfy scientific curiosity, it should bring economic benefits, too. More than 90 percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a U.N. body, making safe navigation a key motivator for mapping. “If a ship runs aground it’s a terrible day for the economy, it’s a terrible day for the environment and it’s a bad day for the captain, too,” Mayer said. Seabed 2030’s map would have other benefits, experts said: In a warming world, it would provide a better idea of sea levels as ice melts and, importantly, warn about impending tsunamis that could devastate coastal communities. They said it would also help the so-called “blue economy” as countries and companies seek to protect or exploit deep-sea resources, from exploring for oil and gas to installing wind farms or laying fiber-optic cables for the internet. That is predicted to become more important in the coming years, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It expects the ocean economy to contribute $3 trillion to the world economy by 2030, up from $1.5 trillion in 2010. Political rifts Some parts of the oceans — the East Coast of the United States, areas around Japan, New Zealand and Ireland — are relatively well-mapped, experts said. Others, including the West African coast or that off the Caribbean, remain largely blank. The introduction of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty, allowed countries to determine their continental shelves and exclusive economic zones, legitimate territorial claims off their coasts. It also spurred a rush to map and claim land, Larter said. “That’s the biggest land grab in recent history,” he said. For Julian Barbiere of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, it would be a “paradox” if, after collaboration at a scientific and technical level to share data, countries used that knowledge against each other in geopolitical spats. “There are already tensions in some parts of the world, and one of the reasons for that is access to resources,” he said. Some countries, he added, are reluctant to give up strategic proprietary data to the Seabed 2030 project, largely because of national security concerns or in areas with sensitive geopolitical tensions, such as the South China Sea. “There is already a lot of data, which is sitting there but it’s not being released. We hope to change attitudes and to really get countries to contribute,” Barbiere said. The next phase of the project, he said, is to encourage data donors and crowdsourcing, not just from exploration vessels but from cargo ships, recreational sea-users and fishing boats. “(It) goes back to this principle: the ocean is an international space by definition ... part of the common heritage of mankind,” he said. Looking ahead, in a bid to meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 14 — to conserve and sustainably use the oceans — mapping will take center stage during negotiations to be completed by 2020, as nations create a new, legally binding treaty to protect the high seas. “There are so many benefits to knowing more about the ocean floor,” Hasebe said. “Humanity as a whole would be able to benefit.”
The Australian parliament’s lower house Thursday passed a bill to force tech firms such as Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook and Apple to give police access to encrypted data, pushing it closer to becoming a precedent-setting law. However, the proposal, staunchly opposed by the tech giants because Australia is seen as a test case as other nations explore similar rules, faces a sterner test in the upper house Senate, where privacy and information security concerns are sticking points. The bill provides for fines of up to A$10 million ($7.3 million) for institutions and prison terms for individuals for failing to hand over data linked to suspected illegal activities. Labor party concerns Earlier in the week it appeared set to secure enough support from both major political parties, with some amendments, to secure passage. However, the main opposition Labor party said Thursday the bill could undermine data security and jeopardize future information sharing with U.S. authorities. “A range of stakeholders have said there is a real risk that the new powers could make Australians less safe ... (by) weakening the encryption that protects national infrastructure,” Labor’s Mark Dreyfus told parliament. The proposed laws could also scupper cooperation with U.S. authorities because they lack sufficient privacy safeguards, Dreyfus said. Labor voted the bill through the lower house but was still negotiating with the government on the issue and would debate it in the Senate, he said. Thursday was the last parliamentary sitting day of the year until a truncated session in February, meaning the impasse could delay the laws for months. The government has said the proposed laws are needed to counter militant attacks and organized crime and that security agencies would need to seek warrants to access personal data. “I will fight to get those encryption laws passed,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra after Dreyfus spoke. “I want to see our police have the powers they need to stop terrorists.” Tech firms opposed Technology companies have strongly opposed efforts to create what they see as a back door to users’ data, a standoff that was propelled into the public arena by Apple’s refusal to unlock an iPhone used by an attacker in a 2015 shooting in California. Representatives of Google, Amazon and Apple did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Apple has said in a public submission to lawmakers access to encrypted data would necessitate weakening the encryption and increase the risk of hacking. A Facebook spokesman directed Reuters to a statement made by the Digital Industry Group Inc (DIGI), of which Facebook as well as Apple, Google, Amazon and Twitter, are members. “This legislation is out of step with surveillance and privacy legislation in Europe and other countries that have strong national security concerns,” the DIGI statement said. “Several critical issues remain unaddressed in this legislation, most significantly the prospect of introducing systemic weaknesses that could put Australians’ data security at risk,” it said. Broad access If the bill becomes law, Australia would be one of the first nations to impose broad access requirements on technology companies, although others, particularly so-called Five Eyes countries, are poised to follow. The Five Eyes intelligence network, comprised of the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, have each repeatedly warned national security was at risk because authorities were unable to monitor the communications of suspects.
Facebook Inc let some companies, including Netflix and Airbnb, access users' lists of friends after it cut off that data for most other apps around 2015, according to documents released on Wednesday by a British lawmaker investigating fake news and social media. The 223 pages of internal communication from 2012 to 2015 between high-level employees, including founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, provide new evidence of previously aired contentions that Facebook has picked favorites and engaged in anti-competitive behavior. The documents show that Facebook tracked growth of competitors and denied them access to user data available to others. In 2014, the company identified about 100 apps as being either "Mark's friends" or "Sheryl's friends" and also tracked how many apps were spending money on Facebook ads, according to the documents, referring to Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. The insight into the thinking of Facebook executives over that period could invite new regulatory scrutiny into its business practices. Facebook said it stood by its deliberations and decisions, but noted that it would relax one "out-of-date" policy that restricted competitors' use of its data. One document said such competitor apps had previously needed Zuckerberg's approval before using tools Facebook makes available to app developers. Zuckerberg wrote in a post on Wednesday that the company could have prevented the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal had it cracked down on app developers a year earlier in 2014. Misuse of Facebook user data by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, along with another data breach this year and revelations about Facebook's lobbying tactics have heightened government scrutiny globally on the company's privacy and content moderation practices. Stifel analysts on Wednesday lowered their rating on Facebook shares to "hold," saying that "political and regulatory blowback seems like it may lead to restrictions on how Facebook operates, over time." Damian Collins, a Conservative British parliamentarian who leads a committee on media and culture, made the internal documents public after demanding them last month under threat of sanction from Six4Three. The defunct app developer obtained them as part of its ongoing lawsuit in California state court alleging that Facebook violated promises to app developers when it ended their access to likes, photos and other data of users' friends in 2015. Facebook, which has described the Six4Three case as baseless, said the released communications were "selectively leaked" and it defended its practices. 'Whitelisted' for Access to friends' data Though filed under seal and redacted in the lawsuit, the internal communications needed to be made public because "they raise important questions about how Facebook treats users' data, their policies for working with app developers, and how they exercise their dominant position in the social media market," Collins said on Twitter. Dating app Badoo and ride-hailing app Lyft were among other companies 'whitelisted' for access to data about users' friends, the documents showed. Lyft wanted to show carpool riders their mutual friends as an "ice breaker," even if those friends were not using Lyft, according to one email. Facebook said in an email that it approved the request because it would add to a feeling of "safety" for riders. Facebook described such deals as short-term extensions, but it is unclear exactly when the various agreements ended. Netflix, Airbnb, Lyft and Badoo did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The documents show an exchange between Zuckerberg and senior executive Justin Osofsky in 2013, in which they decided to stop giving friends' list access to Vine on the day that social media rival Twitter Inc launched the video-sharing service. "We've prepared reactive PR," Osofsky wrote, to which Zuckerberg replied, "Yup, go for it." Twitter declined to comment. Friends' data had stoked the growth of many apps because it enabled people to easily connect with Facebook buddies on a new service. Facebook weighed charging other apps for access to its developer tools, including the friends lists, if they did not buy a certain amount of advertising from Facebook, according to the emails. In one from 2012, Zuckerberg wrote that he was drawing inspiration for business models from books he had been reading about the banking industry. Facebook said it ultimately maintained free access to the tools.
European Union authorities want internet companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter to file monthly reports on their progress eradicating "fake news" campaigns from their platforms ahead of elections next year. Officials from the EU's executive Commission unveiled the measures Wednesday as part of an action plan to counter disinformation in the lead up to the continent-wide vote in the spring. The internet companies will have to submit their reports from January until May, when hundreds of millions of people in 27 EU member countries are scheduled to vote for 705 lawmakers in the bloc's parliament. The Commission singled out Russia. "There is strong evidence pointing to Russia as a primary source of disinformation in Europe," said Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip. Many EU member countries have taken action to combat disinformation, but now "we need to work together and coordinate our efforts," he said. Russian authorities have repeatedly rejected Western accusations of sponsoring disinformation campaigns and described them as part of Western efforts to smear the country. Other measures include a new "rapid alert system," beefing up budgets, and adding expert staff and data analysis tools. Google, Facebook, Twitter and browser maker Mozilla are the companies that so far have signed up to a voluntary EU code of conduct on fighting disinformation. They'll be expected to report on how they're carrying out commitments they made under the code, including their work on making political advertising more transparent and how many fake and bot accounts they have identified and shut down. They'll also provide updates on their cooperation with fact-checkers and academic researchers to uncover disinformation campaigns. Google, which declined to comment, has tightened up requirements for political ads in the EU, including requiring information on who paid for them and for buyers to verify their identities. Facebook, which did not respond to a request for comment, did the same for political ads in Britain. U.S. technology giants have committed millions of dollars, tens of thousands of employees and what they say are their best technical efforts into fighting fake news, propaganda and hate that has proliferated on their digital platforms. "We need to see the internet platforms step up and make some real progress on their commitments," said Julian King, the EU security commissioner. If there's not enough headway, the Commission would consider other options including regulation, he said.
The British Parliament has released some 250 pages worth of documents that show Facebook considered charging developers for data access. Parliament's media committee seized confidential Facebook documents from the developer of a now-defunct bikini photo searching app as part of its investigation into fake news. The documents show internal discussions about linking data to revenue. "There's a big question on where we get the revenue from," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in one email. "Do we make it easy for devs to use our payments/ad network but not require them? Do we require them? Do we just charge a rev share directly and let devs who use them get a credit against what they owe us? It's not at all clear to me here that we have a model that will actually make us the revenue we want at scale." The parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee received the documents from app developer Six4Three, which had acquired the files dating from 2013-2014, as part of a U.S. lawsuit against the social media giant. The app developer is suing Facebook over a change to the social network's privacy policies in 2015 that led Six4Three to shut down its app, Pikinis, which let users find photos of their friends in bathing suits by searching their friends list. Facebook responded quickly, saying the release was misleading. "The documents Six4Three gathered for their baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context," the statement said. "We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends' data with developers. Like any business, we had many internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we've never sold people's data."
Jeff Bezos boldly predicted five years ago that drones would be carrying Amazon packages to people’s doorsteps by now. Amazon customers are still waiting. And it’s unclear when, if ever, this particular order by the company’s founder and CEO will arrive. Bezos made billions of dollars by transforming the retail sector. But overcoming the regulatory hurdles and safety issues posed by drones appears to be a challenge even for the world’s wealthiest man. The result is a blown deadline on his claim to CBS’ “60 Minutes” in December 2013 that drones would be making deliveries within five years. The day may not be far off when drones will carry medicine to people in rural or remote areas, but the marketing hype around instant delivery of consumer goods looks more and more like just that — hype. Drones have a short battery life, and privacy concerns can be a hindrance, too. “I don’t think you will see delivery of burritos or diapers in the suburbs,” says drone analyst Colin Snow. Drone usage has grown rapidly in some industries, but mostly outside the retail sector and direct interaction with consumers. The government estimates that about 110,000 commercial drones are operating in U.S. airspace, and the number is expected to soar to about 450,000 in 2022. They are being used in rural areas for mining and agriculture, for inspecting power lines and pipelines, and for surveying. Amazon says it is still pushing ahead with plans to use drones for quick deliveries, though the company is staying away from fixed timelines. “We are committed to making our goal of delivering packages by drones in 30 minutes or less a reality,” says Amazon spokeswoman Kristen Kish. The Seattle-based online retail giant says it has drone development centers in the United States, Austria, France, Israel and the United Kingdom. Delivery companies have been testing the use of drones to deliver emergency supplies and to cover ground quickly in less populated areas. By contrast, package deliveries would be concentrated in office parks and neighborhoods where there are bigger issues around safety and privacy. In May, the Trump administration approved a three-year program for private companies and local government agencies to test drones for deliveries, inspections and other tasks. But pilot programs by major delivery companies suggest few Americans will be greeted by package-bearing drones any time soon. United Parcel Service tested launching a drone from a delivery truck that was covering a rural route in Florida. DHL Express, the German delivery company, tested the use of drones to deliver medicine from Tanzania to an island in Lake Victoria. Frank Appel, the CEO of DHL’s parent company, Deutsche Post AG, said “over the next couple of years” drones will remain a niche vehicle and not widely used. He said a big obstacle is battery life. “If you have to recharge them every other hour, then you need so many drones and you have to orchestrate that. So good luck with that,” he told The Associated Press. Appel said human couriers have another big advantage over drones: They know where customers live and which doorbell to ring. “To program that in IT is not that easy and not cheap,” he said. Analysts say it will take years for the Federal Aviation Administration to write all the rules to allow widespread drone deliveries. Snow, the CEO of Skylogic Research, says a rule permitting operators to fly drones beyond their line of sight — so critical to deliveries — is at least 10 years away. A method will be needed to let law enforcement identify drones flying over people — federal officials are worried about their use by terrorists. While the rules are being written, companies will rely on waivers from the FAA to keep experimenting and running small-scale pilot programs. “People like DHL and the rest of them (will say), ‘Hey, we can deliver via drone this parcel package to this island,’ but that’s not the original vision that Amazon presented,” Snow says. There is a long list of FAA rules governing drone flights. They generally can’t fly higher than 400 feet, over many federal facilities, or within five miles of an airport. Night flights are forbidden. For the delivery business, the most biggest holdup is that the machines must remain within sight of the operator at all times. In June, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said the FAA’s was being overly conservative in its safety standards for drones. The group said FAA’s risk-averse attitude was holding back beneficial uses, such as drones helping firefighters who are battling a fierce blaze. Even before the criticism by the scientific panel, the FAA had begun to respond more quickly to operators’ requests for waivers from some rules, says Alan Perlman, founder of the Drone Pilot Ground School in Nashville, Tennessee. He said it is also getting easier and cheaper to buy liability insurance. Bezos was mindful of the safety issues, telling “60 Minutes” back in 2013, “This thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they're walking around their neighborhood.” That didn’t stop him from predicting that drones fed with GPS coordinates would be taking off and making deliveries in “four, five years. I think so. It will work, and it will happen.” To Perlman, the billionaire’s optimism made perfect sense. “When you’re in his world you think more about technology than regulations, and the (drone) technology is there,” Perlman said.
Teacher Rishi Rawat has one student who is not human, but a machine. Lessons take place at a lab inside the University of Southern California’s (USC) Clinical Science Center in Los Angeles, where Rawat teaches artificial intelligence, or AI. To help the machine learn, Rawat feeds the computer samples of cancer cells. “They’re like a computer brain, and you can put the data into them and they will learn the patterns and the pattern recognition that’s important to making decisions,” he explained. AI may soon be a useful tool in health care and allow doctors to understand biology and diagnose disease in ways that were never humanly possible. Doctors not going away “Machines are not going to take the place of doctors. Computers will not treat patients, but they will help make certain decisions and look for things that the human brain can’t recognize these patterns by itself,” said David Agus, USC’s professor of medicine and biomedical engineering, director at the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine, and director at the university’s Center for Applied Molecular Medicine. Rawat is part of a team of interdisciplinary scientists at USC who are researching how AI and machine learning can identify complex patterns in cells and more accurately identify specific types of breast cancer tumors. Once a confirmed cancerous tumor is removed, doctors still have to treat the patient to reduce the risk of recurrence. The type of treatment depends on the type of cancer and whether the tumor is driven by estrogen. Currently, pathologists would take a thin piece of tissue, put it on a slide, and stain with color to better see the cells. “What the pathologist has to do is to count what percentage of the cells are brown and what percentage are not,” said Dan Ruderman, a physicist who is also assistant professor of research medicine at USC. The process could take days or even longer. Scientists say artificial intelligence can do something better than just count cells. Through machine learning, it can recognize complicated patterns on how the cells are arranged, with the hope, in the near future of making a quick and more reliable diagnosis that is free of human error. “Are they disordered? Are they in a regular spacing? What’s going on exactly with the arrangement of the cells in the tissue,” described Ruderman of the types of patterns a machine can detect. “We could do this instantaneously for almost no cost in the developing world,” Agus said. Computing power improves Scientists say the time is ripe for the marriage between computer science and cancer research. “All of a sudden, we have the computing power to really do it in real time. We have the ability of scanning a slide to high enough resolution so that the computer can see every little feature of the cancer. So it’s a convergence of technology. We couldn’t have done this, we didn’t have the computing power to do this several years ago,” Agus said. Data is key to having a machine effectively do its job in medicine. “Once you start to pool together tens and hundreds of thousands of patients and that data, you can actually [have] remarkable new insight, and so AI and machine learning is allowing that. It’s enabling us to go to the next level in medicine and really take that art to new heights,” Agus said. Back at the lab, Rawat is not only feeding the computer more cell samples, he also designs and writes code to ensure that the algorithm has the ability to learn features unique to cancer cells. The research now is on breast cancer, but doctors predict artificial intelligence will eventually make a difference in all forms of cancer and beyond.
With the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning, doctors may soon have new ways of diagnosing and treating patients in ways that were never humanly possible. Scientists at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles are developing a way of using machine learning to identify specific types of breast cancer tumors, and they say it's just the beginning of what the computer can do. VOA's Elizabeth Lee has the details from Los Angeles.
The data stolen from the Marriott hotel empire in a massive breach is so rich and specific it could be used for espionage, identity theft, reputation attacks and even home burglaries, security experts say. Hackers stole data on as many as 500 million guests of former Starwood chain properties over four years including credit card and passport numbers, birthdates, phone numbers and hotel arrival and departure dates. It is one of the biggest data breaches on record. By comparison, last year’s Equifax hack affected more than 145 million people. A Target breach in 2013 affected more than 41 million payment card accounts and exposed contact information for more than 60 million customers. Especially sensitive data But the target here — hotels where high-stakes business deals, romantic trysts and espionage are daily currency — makes the data gathered especially sensitive. Jesse Varsalone, a University of Maryland cybersecurity expert, said the affected reservation system could be extremely enticing to nation-state spies interested in the travels of military and senior government officials. “There are just so many things you can extrapolate from people staying at hotels,” Varsalone said. And because the data included reservations for future stays, along with home addresses, burglars could learn when someone wouldn’t be home, said Scott Grissom of LegalShield, a provider of legal services. Starwood brand hotels The affected hotel brands were operated by Starwood before it was acquired by Marriott in 2016. They include W Hotels, St. Regis, Sheraton, Westin, Element, Aloft, The Luxury Collection, Le Meridien and Four Points. Starwood-branded timeshare properties were also affected. None of the Marriott-branded chains were threatened. Email notifications for those who may have been affected begin rolling out Friday and the full scope of the breach was not immediately clear. Marriott was trying to determine if the purloined records included duplicates, such as a single person staying multiple times. Breach undetected for a while Security analysts were especially alarmed to learn of the breach’s undetected longevity. Marriott said it first detected it Sept. 8 but was unable to determine until last week what data had possibly been exposed because the thieves used encryption to remove it in order to avoid detection. Marriott said it did not yet know how many credit card numbers might have been stolen. A spokeswoman said Saturday that it was not yet able to respond to questions such as whether the intrusion and data theft was committed by a single or multiple groups. Cybersecurity expert Andrei Barysevich of Recorded Future said Saturday he believed the breach was financially motivated. The cybercrime gang expert in credit card theft such as the eastern European group known as Fin7 could be a suspect, he said, noting that a dark web credit card vendor recently announced that 2.6 million cards stolen from an unnamed hotel chain would soon be available to the online criminal underworld. “We will have to wait until an official forensic report, although, Marriott may never share their findings openly,” he said. Marriott said the stolen credit card information was encrypted but the hackers may have obtained the “two components needed to decrypt the payment card numbers.” It said it cannot “rule out the possibility that both were taken.” Privacy laws For as many as two-thirds of those affected, the exposed data could include mailing addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and passport numbers. Also dates of birth, gender, reservation dates, arrival and departure times and Starwood Preferred Guest account information. The breach of personal information could put Marriott in violation of new European privacy laws, as guests included European travelers. Marriott set up a website and call center for customers who believe they are at risk. The FBI said anyone contacted by Marriott should “take steps to monitor and safeguard their personally identifiable information and report any suspected instances of identity theft to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.” Passport numbers have previously been part of a hack, though it’s not common. They were among records on 9.4 million passengers of Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific obtained in a breach announced in October. Combined with names, addresses and other personal information, passport numbers are a greater concern than stolen credit card numbers because thieves could use them to open fraudulent accounts, said analyst Ted Rossman of CreditCards.com. Hotels long a source of information The data purloining highlights just how dangerous hotels can be for people worried about their privacy. “Hotels have long been important government sources of local information for tracking foreigners: reservation systems and loyalty programs took the surveillance global and made it easier for us to give up our privacy,” said Colin Bastable, CEO of Lucy Security. Intelligence agencies including the U.S. National Security are well plugged into the global travel industry “by fair means or foul,” he said, nongovernment cybercriminals now have the same hacking tools. “Consumers have become collateral damage,” he said. “And we are all consumers.” He advises providing hotels with as little information as possible when making reservations and checking in. Last year, the cybersecurity firm FireEye highlighted an effort in which Russian state agents allegedly tried to infiltrate the reservation systems of hotels in Europe and the Middle East. 21 million Starwood program members When its acquisition by Marriott was first announced in 2015, Starwood had 21 million people in its loyalty program. The company manages more than 6,700 properties across the globe, most in North America. Marriott, based in Bethesda, Maryland, said in a regulatory filing that it was too early to say what financial impact the breach might have on the company. It said it has cyber insurance and is working with its carriers to assess coverage. Elected officials were quick to call for action. The New York attorney general opened an investigation. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said the U.S. needs laws that limit the data companies can collect on customers and ensure that companies account for security costs rather than making consumers “shoulder the burden and harms resulting from these lapses.”
Microsoft's big bet on cloud computing is paying off as the company has surpassed Apple as the world's most valuable publicly traded company. The software maker's prospects looked bleak just a few years ago, as licenses for the company's Windows system fell with a sharp drop in sales of personal computers. But under CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has found stability by focusing on software and services over the internet, or the cloud, with long-term business contracts. That 1990s personal-computing powerhouse is now having a renaissance moment, as it eclipses Facebook, Google, Amazon and the other tech darlings of the late decade. Apple had been the world's most prosperous firm since claiming the top spot from Exxon Mobil earlier this decade. Microsoft surpassed Apple briefly a few times this week, but didn't close on top until Friday, with a market value of $851 billion to Apple's $847 billion. Microsoft hadn't been at the top since the height of the dot-com boom in 2000. Apple's plunge Microsoft became a contender again in large part because Apple's stock fell nearly 20 percent in November, while Microsoft hasn't done any worse than the rest of the stock market. But the fact that it hasn't done poorly reflects its steady focus on business customers in recent years. Microsoft lost its luster as people were shunning PCs in favor of smartphones. In 2013, PC sales plunged 10 percent to about 315 million, the worst year-to-year drop ever, according to research firms Gartner and IDC. It didn't help that Microsoft's effort to make PCs more like phones, Windows 8, was widely panned. But a turnaround began when the Redmond, Wash., company promoted Nadella as CEO in 2014. He succeeded Microsoft's longtime CEO, Steve Ballmer, who initially scoffed at the notion that people would be willing to pay $500 or more for Apple's iPhones. That bet paid off. Windows is now a dwindling fraction of Microsoft's business. While the company still runs consumer-focused businesses such as Bing search and Xbox gaming, it has prioritized business-oriented services such as its Office line of email and other workplace software, as well as newer additions such as LinkedIn and Skype. But its biggest growth has happened in the cloud, particularly the cloud platform it calls Azure. Cloud computing now accounts for more than a quarter of Microsoft's revenue, and Microsoft rivals Amazon as a leading provider of such services. Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said Azure is still in its early days, meaning there's plenty of room for growth, especially considering the company's large customer base for Office and other products. "While the tech carnage seen over the last month has been brutal, shares of [Microsoft] continue to hold up like the Rock of Gibraltar,'' he said. Being less reliant on consumer demand helped shield Microsoft from holiday season turbulence and U.S.-China trade war jitters affecting Apple and other tech companies. President Donald Trump amplified those tariff concerns when he told The Wall Street Journal in a story published late Monday that new tariffs could affect iPhones and laptops imported from China. The iPhone maker had already seen its stock fall after reporting a mixed bag of quarterly results in early November amid fears about how the technology industry will fare in the face of such threats as rising interest rates, increased government regulation and Trump's escalating trade war with China. Reporting change Apple also spooked investors with an unexpected decision to stop disclosing how many iPhones it sells each quarter. That move has been widely interpreted as a sign that Apple foresees further declines in iPhone sales and is trying to mask that. While smartphones caused the downturn in personal computers years ago, sales of smartphones themselves have now stalled. That's partly because with fewer innovations from previous models, more people choose to hold on to the devices for longer periods before upgrading. Daniel Morgan, senior portfolio manager for Synovus Trust, said Microsoft is outperforming its tech rivals in part because of what it's not. It doesn't face as much regulatory scrutiny as advertising-hungry Google and Facebook, which have attracted controversy over their data-harvesting practices. Unlike Netflix, it's not on a hunt for a diminishing number of international subscribers. And while Amazon also has a strong cloud business, it's still more dependent on online retail.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called on social media companies and technology firms Thursday to work with law enforcement to protect the public from cybercriminals. Speaking at a symposium on online crime, Rosenstein said that "social media platforms provide unprecedented opportunities for the free exchange of ideas. But many users do not understand that the platforms allow malicious actors, including foreign government agents, to deceive them by launching vast influence operations." He said it was up to the companies to "place security on the same footing as novelty and convenience, and design technology accordingly." He warned that if the technology sector failed to do so, government would have to step in. "I think the companies now do understand if they do not take it upon themselves to self-regulate — which is essentially the theme of my talk today — they will face the potential of government regulation," he said. Extortion scheme Rosenstein's remarks came a day after the Justice Department charged two Iranian hackers in connection with a multimillion-dollar cybercrime and extortion scheme that targeted government agencies, cities and businesses. Rosenstein said many tech companies are willing to work with law enforcement and to prevent the use of their platforms to spread disinformation. But he said that "some technology experts castigate colleagues who engage with law enforcement to address encryption and similar challenges. Just because people are quick to criticize you does not mean that you are doing the wrong thing." U.S. law enforcement officials have long been pushing tech companies to make it easier for them to access information on private devices such as cellphones and social media accounts. But most firms have resisted, citing privacy of the users. Rosenstein said data encryption practices were a "significant detriment to public safety." "Improvements in the ability to investigate crime and hold perpetrators accountable must match the pace at which technology is making crimes easier to commit and more destructive," Rosenstein said.
Facebook is cautiously expanding a feature that shows people local news and information, including missing-person alerts, road closures, crime reports and school announcements. Called “Today In,” the service shows people information from their towns and cities from such sources as news outlets, government entities and community groups. Facebook launched the service in January with six cities and expanded that to 25, then more. On Wednesday, “Today In” is expanding to 400 cities in the U.S. — and a few others in Australia. The move comes as Facebook tries to shake off its reputation as a hotbed for misinformation and elections-meddling and rather a place for communities and people to come together and stay informed. Here are some things to know about this effort, and why it matters: The big picture It's something users have asked for, the company says. Think of it as an evolution of a “trending” feature the company dropped earlier this year. That feature, which showed news articles that were popular among users, but was rife with such problems as fake news and accusations of bias. Anthea Watson Strong, product manager for local news and community information, said her team learned from the problems with that feature. “We feel deeply the mistakes of our foremothers and forefathers,” she said. This time around, Facebook employees went to some of the cities they were launching in and met with users. They tried to predict problems by doing “pre-mortem” assessments, she said. That is, instead of a “post-mortem” where engineers dissect what went wrong after the fact, they tried to anticipate how people might misuse a feature — for financial gain, for example. Facebook isn't saying how long it has been taking this “pre-mortem” approach, though the practice isn't unique to the company. Nonetheless, it's a significant step given that many of Facebook's current problems stem from its failure to foresee how bad actors might co-opt the service. Facebook also hopes the feature's slow rollout will prevent problems. How it works To find out if “Today In” is available in your city or town, tap the “menu” icon with the three horizontal lines. Then scroll down until you see it. If you want, you can choose to see the local updates directly in your news feed. For now, the company is offering this only in small and mid-sized cities such as Conroe, Texas, Morgantown, West Virginia, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Large cities such as New York or Los Angeles have added challenges, such as an abundance of news and information, and may need to be broken up into smaller neighborhoods. The posts in “Today In” are curated by artificial intelligence; there is no human involvement. The service aggregates posts from the Facebook pages for news organizations, government agencies and community groups like dog shelters. For this reason, a kid couldn't declare a snow day, because “Today In” relies on the school's official page. Discussion posts from local Facebook groups may also be included. For now, the information is tailored only by geography, but this might change. A person with no kids, for example, might not want to see updates from schools. Safeguards? Facebook uses software filters to weed out objectionable content, just as it does on people's regular news feed. But the filters are turned up for “Today In.” If a good friend posts something a bit objectionable, you are still likely to see it because Facebook takes your friendship into account. But “Today In” posts aren't coming from your friends, so Facebook is more likely to keep it out.