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From Bitcoin to Big Business, Blockchain Technology Goes Mainstream

The technology behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is being looked at by more conventional companies and businesses. Known as blockchain, it is a public digital ledger that keeps a running tally of all cryptocurrency transactions within a distributed network of computers. Once they are recorded, transactions cannot be edited or removed, thus adding to the “chain.” “It’s kind of like if you share an Excel file with a group of your employees at the office, but you don’t know exactly who updated it,” explained Hudson Jameson, chief operating officer and blockchain lead at Oaken Innovations. “Every time that you update the file, it gets updated on every other computer.” Cut out the middle man Blockchains eliminate the need for intermediary parties, by relying on a decentralized network of computers, or nodes, to verify all transactions. Bitcoin uses blockchain technology to enable anonymous, peer-to-peer payments, which is why the digital currency is often associated with illicit activity. But developers are realizing blockchain technology can be equally useful in traditional, commercial applications. “There’s this whole trend of enterprise blockchains, which is essentially using certain aspects of blockchain technology, like this global shared ledger, but without native cryptocurrency, so a way to represent their actual balance sheets and just kind of transact them more efficiently with their peers,” said Alex Sunnarborg, research analyst at Coindesk. “More people are using these networks and the space has really just boomed,” Sunnarborg added. Competition from startups Bitcoin’s blockchain protocol is also seeing competition from startups like Ethereum, which issues ether, a competing digital currency. Like bitcoin, the Ethereum protocol is open-source. Users can not only conduct transactions with ether, but interested developers can program and build applications that run on the same blockchain protocol and use ether as a form of payment. Jameson’s startup developed a hardware and software platform for cars based on the Ethereum blockchain. “We put an Ethereum node on a Tesla, and whenever it would go through a toll bridge, the Ethereum node ... would interact with the toll bridge and autonomously pay the toll bridge,” Jameson said. “If you think about what a toll bridge does today, you go through the toll bridge and you have to pay a credit card transaction fee. There [are] these systems in the toll bridge that work with multiple companies ... but with our system, it’s literally machine-to-machine.” This machine-to-machine communication allows direct access to the digital currency stored in one’s digital wallet. Transactions are processed on the spot without going outside of the network. “Automakers are now starting to get interested in blockchain, they’re seeing what it can do for ... the future for autonomous cars and some data-sharing applications ... and blockchain’s going to be integral to that,” Jameson said. Corporations explore its uses Companies like Toyota, UnitedHealth Group and Fidelity are exploring blockchain technologies as a way to streamline operations and cut costs. In doing so, they are also lending legitimacy to the space. “It’s no longer just bitcoin ... it really started as currency, but this whole, decentralized peer-to-peer technology thing really kicked off a whole trend of much more than just money,” Sunnarborg said. Only time will tell whether blockchain can set off a chain reaction. “How it evolves into government frameworks is yet to be seen,” added Sunnarborg. “But it’s really hard to stop it at this point, it’s like once the cat’s out of the bag with this new technology it’s out there, and people are going to continue to transact.”

From Bitcoin to Big Business, Blockchain Technology Goes Mainstream

Bitcoin, the controversial digital currency, recently made headlines for reaching a record high valuation of more than $2,700, but perhaps the bigger growth potential lies in blockchain. The technology behind bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies is being explored by more conventional companies and businesses. VOA's Tina Trinh reports from New York.

Students Tackle Tough US Defense Problems

In their Hacking for Defense class, students at Stanford University in California don't hit the books or work on problem sets in the library. They go out into the field, tackling real world problems given to them by the Department of Defense and the U.S. military. The unusual 10-week course is an eye opener for the students who learn up close the challenges facing national security. VOA's Michelle Quinn checked it out.

Illinois Company Among Hundreds Supporting NASA Mission to Mars

Few people who live along a quiet, tree-lined stretch of Fulton Street realize that inside the buildings at the end of their neighborhood, the future of human spaceflight is taking shape. “I would doubt many people in Rockford know Ingersoll is manufacturing these components,” Mike Reese, director of sales for Ingersoll Machine Tools, told VOA.  But “these” aren’t just any components …they are critical to NASA’s effort to take people back to the moon, and on to Mars.  “This is going to be some astronaut’s home,” Astronaut Rex Walheim explains, pointing to a shiny, large aluminum ring situated on the floor of Ingersoll’s facility.  “This is the barrel section of the Orion, so this is the central section of the pressure vessel.  It’s where the astronauts will basically live and work, and the only place they’ll have to go while they’re on this mission. It’s what keeps us alive.”  The “barrel” is one of four components created by Ingersoll for Lockheed Martin, the aerospace company assembling the Orion capsule.  Although Walheim made history as part of the last Space Shuttle mission in 2011, he admits he probably won’t be a part of the crew that will return to the moon, or go on to Mars.  He has spent the last six years since the shuttle fleet was retired as NASA’s astronaut representative to the Orion program, working on a project he says has taken longer than anticipated.  “Everybody wanted to do this faster,” Walheim explained.  “Everybody wanted the gap between our shuttle and deep space program to be shorter, but we are where we are, and we’ve made tremendous progress and now we’re at the point where we’re building the actual vehicles and we’re testing them and we’re going to fly them.”  A budget proposal by the Trump Administration in March outlines a commitment to continue the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s efforts to send astronauts to Mars.  About $3.7 billion is earmarked for development of the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule, which isn’t a replacement for the Space Shuttle, but a next generation space flight vehicle designed to take humans farther into space than ever before.  “NASA’s focus is now on the harder – the more difficult destinations,” Orion Program Manager Mark Kirasich told VOA in an interview while touring the progress of manufacturing at Ingersoll’s Illinois facility.    He said part of NASA’s strategy is letting commercial companies focus on developing equipment for low earth orbit spaceflight, which was the primary mission of the now retired Space Shuttle program, allowing NASA to focus resources on the new equipment in the Space Launch System, and the Orion capsule, with Mars as the ultimate objective.  “We have completed two tests flights to date,” he says.  “One of our abort system and our first orbital flight test, and right now we are building – we are about 75 percent complete – with our next flight vehicle which will fly on Exploration Mission 1.”  The Orion capsule “barrel” on display at Ingersoll Machine Tools is earmarked for Exploration Mission 2, which will take astronauts back to the moon by 2023, preparing them for the eventual journey to Mars.    The last time astronauts orbited the moon, Ingersoll’s Mike Reese was a young child.    “I’ve definitely played the Orion cool card with my children,” he told VOA.  “I’ve let them go up to and touch the flight hardware and get a chance to see what we’re doing here.  They think the whole program and the whole idea of going to Mars is very interesting and very cool.”  Exploration Mission 1, the first full test of the Space Launch System and Orion capsule, is scheduled for later this year.  NASA plans to send that unmanned Orion capsule 64,000 kilometers beyond the moon in the first mission on the agency’s path to Mars, a destination they hope to reach by the 2030s.

Cassini Spacecraft Facing Glorious Death

It took seven years for the deep-space probe Cassini to reach Saturn. Since 2005 it has been studying the planet and its moons, sending troves of photos and information. As the spacecraft reaches the end of its useful life, scientists will soon send it into Saturn's atmosphere until it burns up. VOA's George Putic reports.

Illinois Company Among Hundreds Supporting NASA Mission to Mars

A budget proposal by the Trump administration in March outlines a commitment to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) effort to send astronauts to Mars. About $3.7 billion is earmarked for development of the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule, crucial parts of NASA’s effort to send humans deeper into space. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh explores the effort of contractors working on the project, united by the commitment to “boldly go” further into the final frontier.

Fitness Trackers Bad at Measuring Calories Burned, Study Says

It’s probably not a good idea to decide what to eat based on how many calories your wearable fitness tracker says you’ve burned, according to a new study. Researchers at Stanford University in California, who tested several popular fitness trackers on 60 volunteers, say the fitness trackers are good for measuring heart rate and counting steps, but they’re bad at measuring energy expenditure. The volunteers, 29 men and 31 women, engaged in a variety of physical activities, including walking or running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. Their heart rates were measured using a medical-grade electrocardiograph. Energy expenditure was determined by measuring the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the volunteers’ breath. Six of the seven devices tested, which included the Apple Watch, Basis Peak, Fitbit Surge, Microsoft Band, Mio Alpha 2, PulseOn and the Samsung Gear S2, did a good job measuring heart rate, coming within 5 percent of the accuracy of the electrocardiograph. However, when it came to measuring calories burned, they did not do a very good job, with the most accurate tracker off by 27 percent. One was off by 93 percent. “People are basing life decisions on the data provided by these devices,” said Euan Ashley, a professor of cardiovascular medicine, of genetics and of biomedical data science at Stanford, who added that consumer devices aren’t held to the same standards as medical devices. Ashley was surprised by the results. “The heart rate measurements performed far better than we expected,” he said. “But the energy expenditure measures were way off the mark. The magnitude of just how bad they were surprised me.” The findings were published May 24 in the Journal of Personalized Medicine.

Computer Wins 2nd Game Against Chinese Go Champion

A computer beat China's top player of go, one of the last games machines have yet to master, for a second time Thursday in a competition authorities limited the Chinese public's ability to see. Ke Jie lost despite playing what Google's AlphaGo indicated was the best game any opponent has played against it, said Demis Hassabis, founder of the company that developed the program. AlphaGo defeated Ke, a 19-year-old prodigy, in their first game Tuesday during a forum organized by Google on artificial intelligence in Wuzhen, a town west of Shanghai. They play a final game Saturday. AlphaGo previously defeated European and South Korean champions, surprising players who had expected it to be at least a decade before computers could master the game. Internet users outside China could watch this week's games live but Chinese censors blocked most mainland web users from seeing the Google site carrying the feed. None of China's dozens of video sites carried the live broadcasts but a recording of Tuesday's game was available the following night on one popular site, Youku.com. State media reports on the games have been brief, possibly reflecting Beijing's antipathy toward Google, which closed its China-based search engine in 2010 following a dispute over censorship and computer hacking. Google says 60 million people in China watched online when AlphaGo played South Korea's go champion in March 2016. The official response to the match, a major event for the worlds of go and artificial intelligence, reflects the conflict between the ruling Communist Party's technology ambitions and its insistence on controlling what its public can see, hear and read. The government encourages internet use for business and education but tries to block access to material considered subversive. The possible reason for suppressing coverage while allowing Google to organize the event was unclear. Censorship orders to Chinese media are officially secret and government officials refuse to confirm whether online material is blocked. On Thursday, AlphaGo “thought that Ke Jie played perfectly” for the first 50 moves, Hassabis said at a news conference. “For the first roughly 100 moves, it is the closest game we have ever seen anyone play against the master version of AlphaGo,” he said. Ke said the computer made unexpected moves after playing more methodically on Tuesday. “From the perspective of human beings, it stretched a little bit and I was surprised at some points,” he said. “I also thought that I was very close to winning the match in the middle,” Ke said. “I could feel my heart thumping. But maybe because I was too excited, I did some wrong or stupid moves. I guess that's the biggest weak point of human beings.” Go players take turns putting white or black stones on a rectangular grid with 361 intersections, trying to capture territory and each other's pieces by surrounding them. The game is considered more difficult than chess for machines to master because the near-infinite number of possible positions requires intuition and flexibility. This week's games are taking place in a hall where Chinese leaders hold the annual World Internet Conference, an event attended by global internet companies. China has the world's biggest population of internet users, with some 730 million people online at the end of last year, according to government data. Censors block access to social media and video-sharing websites such as Facebook and YouTube. Internet companies are required to employ teams of censors to watch social media and remove banned material. Web surfers can get around online filters using virtual private networks, but Beijing has cracked down on use of those.

New Zealand-Launched Rocket Reaches Space, Not Orbit

California-based company Rocket Lab said Thursday it had launched a test rocket into space from its New Zealand launch pad, although the rocket didn’t reach orbit as hoped.    The company said its Electron rocket lifted off at 4:20 p.m. Thursday and reached space three minutes later.    “It has been an incredible day and I’m immensely proud of our talented team,” company founder Peter Beck said in a statement.    Beck, a New Zealander, said the early stages of the mission went well.    “We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position,” he said.  More tests approved Rocket Lab was given official approval last week to conduct three test launches from the remote Mahia Peninsula on the North Island. The company hopes to begin commercial launches later this year and eventually launch about one rocket every week.    The company said it will target getting to orbit on the second test and will look to carry the maximum payload.    New Zealand has never had a space program but officials hope regular launches could change perceptions of the South Pacific nation and generate hundreds of millions of dollars each year in revenue.    Rocket Lab plans to keep costs low by using lightweight, disposable rockets with 3D-printed engines. It sees an emerging market in delivering lots of small devices into low Earth orbit. The satellites would be used for everything from monitoring crops to providing internet service.  New space club member   Politicians are rushing through new space laws and the government has set up a boutique space agency, which employs 10 people.    “So far, it’s only superpowers that have gone into space,” Simon Bridges, New Zealand’s economic development minister, told The Associated Press last week. “For us to do it, and be in the first couple of handfuls of countries in the world, is pretty impressive.”    Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is unusual in many respects. It carries only a small payload of about 150 kilograms (331 pounds). It’s made from carbon fiber and uses an electric engine. Rocket Lab says each launch will cost just $5 million, a tiny fraction of a typical rocket launch.    It’s a different plan than some other space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which uses larger rockets to carry bigger payloads.    Rocket Lab was founded by Beck and is privately held. The company has received about $150 million in venture capital funding. 

New Generation of Companies Looks to Create New Kind of Plant-based Food

In a San Francisco kitchen, chefs are re-creating everyday foods, such as eggs, mayonnaise, salad dressings and cookies from unconventional sources.  “Playing with ingredients that are totally different in the food system is a lot like walking on the moon. We’re doing things no one has ever done before so it’s challenging,” said chef Chris Jones, who heads product development at the Hampton Creek technology company.  While vegetarian foods have been around as long as there have been vegetarians, a new generation of companies, mostly from California, is using new technology to look for alternative protein sources that do not come from an animal.  Hampton Creek  Hampton Creek uses robotics to identify plants from around the world that can help re-create traditional foods substituting animal products with plant material.  “We look into the different molecular characteristics and ultimately we’re able to identify relationships between what we see on a molecular level and whether it causes a cake to rise or what makes a mayo taste good or whether it binds a cookie together or makes a nice creamy butter,” said Hampton Creek founder Josh Tetrick.  “It’s been really recent advances, both in screening methodologies as well as data science, that actually makes it possible,” said Jim Flatt, Hampton Creek’s chief of research and development. Beyond burger  In the lab of another company, Beyond Meat, scientists re-created a hamburger patty out of proteins from yellow peas, soy and beets for the look of blood. The scientists are breaking down the building blocks of meat and going into the plant kingdom to look for those same elements. They’re then rebuilding them into a new kind of food that uses plant-based protein to create a patty that looks just like a beef patty  “What we’re doing is we’re taking plant matter. We’re running it through heating, cooling and pressure and that’s basically stitching together the proteins so they take on the fibrous texture of animal muscle,” said Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown  These companies say plants hold the key to solving global food problems.  “Whether it’s Asia, Africa, India, you’re seeing a very strong trend toward increasing animal protein consumption. I don’t think as a globe we can afford that,” Brown said.    “The planet actually cannot work with the way we are consuming meat because we don’t have enough arable land to create enough cereals for all the animals that we need if we are to feed the world through meat,” said Jeremy Coller of Coller Capital, an investor of alternative protein foods.  “Food security is an increasingly big issue, particularly because of climate change and some other issues. I think if you expand the number of tools we can use to feed people really well, you help to mitigate against these risks,” said Tetrick, who envisions bringing healthier, new plant-based foods, that are culturally relevant to local cuisines, to regions in the world such as Africa, where hunger is no stranger.  For now, Beyond Meat’s patties are sold in Hong Kong and the U.S.  Hampton Creek’s mayonnaise, salad dressings and cookies can be found in Mexico, Hong Kong and U.S. grocery stories.  Both companies are trying to improve and expand their range of products.  “How do we figure out a way to make food healthier, that’s more sustainable, to actually taste good that’s actually affordable for everyone,” explained Tetrick of his mission.  Because of this greater global goal, those who work in this industry say the subject of alternative sources of protein is not a fad, but a trend that is here to stay.

Using the Internet to Monitor the Elderly at Home

According to the National Institutes of Health, 17 percent of people around the world will be 65 or older by 2050. Currently it is just more than 8 percent. That expected flood of elderly people is prompting authorities to think about new ways to care for them, and no surprise, the internet is involved. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Virtual Reality Lets Us Travel in Space and Time

An increasing number of museums and exhibition halls around the world use virtual reality technology to transport visitors to different spaces and different time. London's Somerset House recently opened a virtually recreated exhibition staged 178 years ago, showing some of the earliest photographs, transporting users to the birth of the information age. VOA's George Putic reports.

Using Technology to Create New Kind of Plant-Based Food

Whether it’s for religious, ethical or health reasons, people who don’t eat meat have had vegetarian options with the help of some creativity in the kitchen. Plants may also hold the key to solving global food problems. That’s the mission of a new generation of plant-based foods created with technology's help. These mostly California-based companies are finding shelf space in U.S. grocery stores and beyond. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee visited a few of these test kitchens.

Instagram, Snapchat Rated ‘Worst’ Platforms for Young People

Instagram and Snapchat are the worst social media platform for young people’s mental health, and YouTube is the most positive, a new study suggests. The ranking comes in a report from the British Royal Society for Public Health, which ranked the sites’ impact on young people. “Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues,” said Shirley Cramer, the chief executive of the RSPH. “It’s interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and well being, both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people.” For the study, researchers surveyed about 1,500 young people age 14 to 24 from Britain, asking them to score the impact social media sites had on 14 “health and well-being” issues. Those include anxiety, depression, quality of sleep, body image, loneliness and real-world friendships and connections. According the RSPH, YouTube was the most positive, followed by Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. “Social media has dramatically shifted how we socialize, communicate, and form relationships with each other,” said Laci Green, a professional health YouTuber with 1.5 million subscribers. “Its impact cannot be understated.” She added that since Instagram and Facebook “present highly curated versions of the people we know and the world around us, it is easy for our perspective of reality to become distorted.” To combat the negative influence of social media, the researchers recommend adding pop ups that warn users of heavy usage, which was supported by 71 percent of the people surveyed. Another recommendation is for social media companies that can tell from a user’s post that they’re in distress could discretely point them toward help. That was supported by 80 percent of those surveyed. Finally, nearly 70 percent said social media sites should note when a photo has been manipulated. “As the evidence grows that there may be potential harms from heavy use of social media, and as we upgrade the status of mental health within society, it is important that we have checks and balances in place to make social media less of a wild west when it comes to young people’s mental health and well being,” said Cramer. “We want to promote and encourage the many positive aspects of networking platforms and avoid a situation that leads to social media psychosis which may blight the lives of our young people.”

Amazon Founder Gives $1 Million to Support Press Freedom

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has promised to donate $1 million to support press freedom, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press announced Tuesday. "This generous gift will help us continue to grow, to offer our legal and educational support to many more news organizations, and to expand our services to independent journalists, nonprofit newsrooms and documentary filmmakers," Reporters Committee Chairman David Boardman said. "We'll also be better positioned to help local newsrooms, the places hit hardest by the disruption in the news industry and whose survival is every bit as crucial to American democracy as those entities headquartered in Washington and New York." The gift from Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post newspaper, is the largest the organization has ever received. The Reporters Committee also announced that it will support First Look Media and help administer its Media Press Freedom Defense Fund of up to $6 million. First Look Media was established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Bezos and Omidyar have cited a need for efforts to support an independent press. Last month, Omidyar's philanthropy, the Omidyar Network, promised $100 million over the next three years to support journalism and fight fake news.

More Robots to Take Over Humans’ Jobs

According to a recent analysis, in about 15 years, depending on the country, up to 38 percent of jobs performed by humans may be turned over to robots. Experts who gathered last week at a robotic expo in Paris say we have to prepare for the new reality if we want to avoid disruptive social changes. VOA’s George Putic reports.

E-vision Glasses Enhance Vision for the Legally Blind

There are an estimated 39 million blind people in the world. Another 200 million, people like Julissa Marquez, are visually impaired. A knife attack left her with a less than 10 percent chance of having useful vision. But some new technology has literally opened her eyes. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Youth Robotics Contest Promotes Innovation for Africa Economic Growth

Several hundred middle school and high school students from Senegal and surrounding countries spent last week in Dakar building robots. Organizers of the annual robotics competition say the goal is to encourage African governments and private donors to invest more in science and math education throughout the continent. Ricci Shryock reports for VOA from Senegal's capital.

Tattoos Talk and Play Music

A tattoo artist in California has created what many of us can't imagine — a tattoo that also produces sound. Artist Nate Siggard inks audio soundwaves onto the skin that makes it possible to hear music or someone's voice by using a smartphone app. VOA's Deborah Block explains how he does it.

Robotics Contest for Youth Promotes Innovation for Economic Growth in Africa

Several hundred middle school and high school students from Senegal and surrounding countries spent last week in Dakar building robots. Organizers of the annual robotics competition say the goal is to encourage African governments and private donors to invest more in science and math education throughout the continent. The hum of tiny machines fills a fenced-off obstacle course, as small robots compete to gather mock natural resources such as diamonds and gold. The robots were built by teams of young people gathered in Dakar for the annual Pan-African Robotics Competition. 'Made in Africa' The event's founder, Sidy Ndao, says this year's theme is “Made in Africa," and focuses on how robotics developed in Africa could help local economies. “We have noticed that most countries that have developed in the likes of the United States have based their development on manufacturing and industrialization, and African countries on the other hand are left behind in this race," Ndao said. “So we thought it would be a good idea to inspire the kids to tell them about the importance of manufacturing, the importance of industry, and the importance of creation and product development." During the week, the students were split into three groups. The first group worked on robots that could automate warehouses. The second created machines that could mine natural resources, and the third group was tasked to come up with a new African product and describe how to build it. Building a robot a team effort Seventeen-year-old Rokyaha Cisse from Senegal helped her team develop a robot that sends sound waves into the ground to detect the presence of metals and then start digging. Cisse says it is very interesting and fun, and they are learning new things, as well as having their first opportunity to handle robots. As part of a younger team, Aboubacar Savage from Gambia said their robot communicates with computers. “It is a robot that whatever you draw into the computer, it translates it and draws it in real life," Savage said. “It is kind of hard. And there is so much competition, but we are trying. I have learned how to assemble a robot. I have learned how to program into a computer." The event's founder, Ndao, is originally from Senegal, but is now a professor at the University of Nebraska's Lincoln College of Engineering in the United States. “I have realized how much the kids love robotics and how much they love science," Ndao said “You can tell because when it is time for lunch, we have to convince them to actually leave, and then [when] it is time to go home, nobody wants to leave." Outsourced jobs cost Africa billions A winning team was named in each category, but Ndao hopes the real winners will be science and technology in Africa. The organizers of the Next Einstein Forum, which held its annual global gathering last year in Senegal, said Africa is currently missing out on $4 billion a year by having to outsource jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to expatriates. Ndao said African governments and private investors need to urgently invest more on education in those fields, in particular at the university level.

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